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A Painting Stolen in One of Germany’s Biggest Art Heists Could Be a Rembrandt

The work, recovered last September, is one of five Old Master paintings stolen in 1979 from Schloss Friedenstein.

Unknown Rembrandt Painting Courtesy of Schloss Friedenstein in Gotha

In 1979, five Old Master paintings were stolen from Schloss Friedenstein in Gotha, in former East Germany’s most audacious art heist. The group of works was recovered last September, and researchers now believe one of them, a Dutch portrait of a bearded elderly man, to be an unknown Rembrandt.

The portrait of the old man dates from between 1629 and 1632, and was the most damaged of the five works, having sustained deep scratches during the theft. Following their restoration, all five paintings are now on display at Schloss Friedenstein in the exhibition “Back in Gotha! The Lost Masterpieces,” which runs through August 21, 2022.

Over the centuries, the portrait of the old man has been attributed to Jan Lievens, a close contemporary of Rembrandt, and to Ferdinand Bol, a student of Rembrandt’s workshop. The attribution to Bol was bolstered by his signature on the back of the canvas.

But the researchers who undertook the restoration and scientific analysis of the painting don’t believe either Bol or Lievens to be its artist. Timo Trümper, curator of the exhibition at Schloss Friedenstein, told the Art Newspaper that the signature only suggests that Bol owned the portrait at some point.

The analysis also raises new possibilities about a remarkably similar portrait bearing Rembrandt’s signature at the Harvard Art Museums. If Rembrandt is proven to be the author of the Gotha work, it could indicate that the Harvard version is a studio copy.

“It’s a question of interpretation,” Trümper said“We can be sure [the Gotha painting] originated in Rembrandt’s studio—the question is how much of it is Rembrandt and how much his pupils? We have already talked to a lot of colleagues. Half say: ‘No, it’s not Rembrandt, it’s one of his pupils.’ The other half say it’s an interesting theory and they can’t rule it out.”

Until now, the portrait escaped serious investigation into its attribution largely due to its decades-long disappearance from the Baroque castle, along with two portraits by Hans Holbein the Elder and Frans Hals, a landscape from the studio of Jan Brueghel the Elder, and a copy of an Anthony van Dyck self-portrait by one of the artist’s contemporaries. According to an essay in the exhibition catalogue by the Spiegel journalist Konstantin von Hammerstein, the thief was identified as Rudi Bernhardt, a East German train driver who smuggled the five paintings to West Germany with the help of a German couple who bequeathed the art to their children. Bernhardt died in 2016 without confessing to any involvement crime.

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