As It Happens

Dutch art dealer may have found a lost painting by Rembrandt

This week, a Dutch art dealer announced that he believes he's discovered a previously unknown Rembrandt painting.

The painting sold for £140,000, much lower than the expected price of a Rembrandt painting

Art dealer Jan Six reacts as a painting attributed to famous Dutch Master Rembrandt is put on display at the Hermitage museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Peter Dejong/The Associated Press)

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Scrolling through the catalogue for London's Christie's auction house, a portrait of a young man immediately caught the attention of Jan Six. 

Looking right at him was a man who appeared in his 20s with a "red fluffy hairdo" and wearing a black velvet suit with a lace collar. The catalogue had labelled the painting "Circle of Rembrandt," referring to a group of people among the famous painter's circle — perhaps one of his apprentices or students.

But upon looking closer at the portrait on the catalogue, Six started wondering whether the mysterious portrait was actually done by Rembrandt himself.

"If you just look at the fashion that the young man is wearing, you can see it's from the early [1630s]. Rembrandt just came to Amsterdam from Leiden in the early '30s," Six, an art dealer in Amsterdam, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Dutch art dealer Jan Six places a Rembrandt painting called "Portrait of a Young Man" into its frame. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

"I thought, 'Hang on. He's just new in Amsterdam. He doesn't have a circle. He doesn't have any followers. He just entered the city.' So there's something weird here, and I've got the sense that Christie's didn't really catalogue it properly."

Intrigued by the mystery of the painting, Six immediately went to his library and scrolled through his books to see if he could find a version of the portrait. He ended up with nothing. That made Six even more determined to find the answer.  

"I got really excited because that means that either it's some sort of fake or it's the real deal."

He printed out an image of the portrait and took it to art historian Ernst van de Wetering, who specializes on Rembrandt paintings. The pair concluded they would have to see it for real to be sure.

Portrait of a Young Gentleman

Knowing that the painting was on sale, Six flew to London to attend an auction that was being held at Christie's. The event took place in 2016. With the help of an investor, Six purchased the painting called Portrait of a Young Gentleman at close to £140, 000 (about $242,256 Cdn).

"We were actually quite lucky because it didn't fetch a Rembrandt price. It actually fetched a rather agreeable price," Six said.

Six says he believes others at the auction had the same idea as him, considering that the painting he purchased had already made 10 times its asking price.

"The fact that it didn't make millions means that they didn't really see a serious option that it could be Rembrandt. I think that people might have thought it was one of his great students."

Painstaking research

Even with the life-sized painting in his possession, Six had to be sure.

"At that moment the real adventure started, and I decided, what we need to do is to completely restore the painting and look at all the details and start talking to many experts in the field and try to figure out what the truth is," he said.

In the years since the auction, the painting was cleaned, X-rayed and heavily researched by multiple experts.

In the end, van Wetering concluded that he thought the painting was indeed a Rembrandt.

A painting attributed to famous Dutch Master Rembrandt is prepared for display at the Hermitage museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Peter Dejong/The Associated Press)

Earlier this week, Six finally announced that he believes he's discovered a previously unknown Rembrandt painting. 

But despite van Wetering's seal of approval, it still isn't confirmed that The Portrait of a Young Gentleman is one by Rembrandt.

Six says he understands that one may never truly know the answer, considering that no one today has been able to witness Rembrandt painting his works. But after consulting with a number of experts, he says: "in the end it is about accepting it, because the real truth is very hard to find."

A personal connection

But while Six was not alive when Rembrandt created his works, he says he has a special connection to the artist. After all, Six is a direct descendant of the subject of one of Rembrandt's most famous paintings: Portrait of Jan Six.

The portrait has remained in Six's family for 11 generations, and he is the 11th person to be named Jan Six in the family.

But when considering whether it was fate that brought this new painting into his life, Six remains hesitant.

"Maybe it was destined to be," he said.

"I try not to say that because in the end of the day, to really discover a picture by Rembrandt, you do need to work a lot. You need to understand what the painter did."

Written by Samantha Lui. Interview produced by Julian Uzielli.