The Trials and Travels of Columbia’s Former Rembrandt

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Keep your eyes open for the February issue of The Blue and White, coming to campus tomorrow. Until then, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting highlights of the upcoming issue online. Among the treats to look forward to: financial aid for international undergrads, a look at Columbia’s strange investment in a supposedly safer cigarette, and the Sisyphean struggle of Bacchanal. Here, magazine contributor Naomi Sharp investigates the journey of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo.”

A Rembrandt painting that Columbia sold in 1974 for $1 million—$4 million today—is once again on the market, now with a price tag of $47 million.


Illustration by Katharine Lin, CC ’16

This development is only the latest chapter in the odd history of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo,” dated 1658. The painting was donated to Columbia in 1958 by supermarket billionaire George Huntington Hartford II, on the condition that it be sold to fund neurological research in the College of Physicians and Surgeons. When the Vietnam War ignited the 1968 student occupation of Low, protesters in the president’s office allowed the painting to be removed for safekeeping.

Amid doubts of the painting’s authenticity, Columbia sold “Portrait of a Man” to John Seward Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson consumer empire. Upon Johnson’s death in 2004, the painting resurfaced at an auction at London. It was proven to be a genuine Rembrandt and sold for $33 million.

The buyer was Steve Wynn, a Las Vegas casino owner. In the art world, Wynn isn’t exactly known for his curatorial finesse; during a now-infamous dinner party in 2006, while showing off his private collection to guests (including Nora Ephron and Barbara Walters), he managed to poke a six-inch hole in Picasso’s masterpiece “Le Rêve” with his elbow.

Fortunately, “Portrait of a Man” emerged unscathed from its brief stint with Wynn. In 2009 Wynn sold the painting—intact—to Otto Naumann Ltd, a private gallery on the Upper East Side. A former college professor, Naumann left academia after learning that garbage workers in New York were striking to protest a salary that was higher than his own. Now, Naumann is one of the leading art collectors in New York. Dutch paintings fill his quiet three-room gallery, where the only visitors are potential buyers.

Though Naumann described the painting as “a little schmutzy-looking” before cleaning, it was in beautiful condition when I visited the gallery. The man in the portrait meets the viewer’s eye with a steady gaze, unruffled by wild-eyed students and wild-elbowed art collectors. Against a backdrop of muted browns and greens, an unseen light brightens half of the man’s face and streaks his brown doublet with amber.

Before I visited his gallery, Naumann had emailed me a copy of the letter verifying the painting’s authenticity. The letter’s author was Ernst van de Wetering, a Dutch art historian generally recognized as the world’s leading Rembrandt expert.

“Look at the cuff of the sleeve,” Naumann indicated, gesturing with a magnifying glass to a sliver of deep brown visible among the brushstrokes. Analysis has shown it to be quartz ground, a material unique to Rembrandt’s studio. Because Rembrandt was bankrupt and unable to support students in 1658, any work produced then in his studio is almost certainly his own.

Although the piece’s creator is now undisputed, Naumann still calls the painting “a puzzle.” No one has identified its subject—though some have supposed him a Dutch admiral, a traveler from the Mediterranean, or a pirate (the last based on the faint shadow of what could be a dagger tucked into his sash). He may never have existed at all, outside of Rembrandt’s imagination.

The painting has never been exhibited publicly, and it will most likely be sold into a private collection once more. That’s the most practical path, says Naumann: “There are very few museums that can afford this.”

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  1. Um  

    "Because Rembrandt was bankrupt and unable to support students in 1968"

    Wasn't he also dead?

  2. Anonymous

    Altho sad, Columbia does have the greatest Neurological Institute in the world on return.

  3. hm  

    Wonder where this idea came from? When Universities Sell Art: The Case of Columbia's Rembrandt
    Jon Wiener on January 21, 2013

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