In 2021, a small nocturne depicting a Biblical scene came to an online auction, attributed to the Circle of Rembrandt and carrying an estimate of €10,000-€15,000. It will soon return to the block as a bona-fide painting by the Dutch master, with an eight-figure price tag to match. Sotheby's will offer The Adoration of the Kings (around 1628) at its Old Masters evening sale in London this December with a £10m to £15m estimate. The work will have a third-party guarantee.
The painting is now touted by the auction house as a "rediscovered" work. Its provenance history states that it was acquired by the Dutch collector Johannes Carel Hendrik Heldring in 1955. Records disappeared for the work sometime around his death in 1962. Heldring's widow later consigned the work in 1985 to Christie's Amsterdam, where it received the attribution of Circle of Rembrandt.
A quarter of a century later, the work returned to Christie's Amsterdam in an online sale in October 2021, consigned from a private family collection in Germany. But its promise was clearly noticed, and it catapulted past its five-figure estimate to make €860,000 (including fees).
Rembrandt painted the work in his early 20s, when he was living in the Dutch city of Leiden. "Rembrandt's Leiden period is one of very rapid growth—and it is often difficult to be certain of chronology in these works as a result—he is an artist in a hurry," says George Gordon, the Sotheby's specialist who led an 18-month research project to reattribute the work, after being approached by the winning bidder from the Amsterdam sale. Among the prominent Rembrandt scholars to support Sotheby's reattribution include Volker Manuth, who co-wrote the 2019 catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt’s paintings
The monochromatic work bears many of Rembrandt's signature tropes, such as chiaroscuro, as well as key stylistic traits of the Leiden period, including "strange, glum faces and limbs painted in a single brushstroke", Gordon says. The painting was studied using detailed infrared imaging technology, which allowed Sotheby's to discover instances of repainting. A key finding is that Rembrandt changed the angles of the protagonists' heads towards the holy family, "tightening the composition for heightened psychological drama", Gordon says.
Sotheby's estimate of £10m to £15m is pegged to recent sales made by the house for Rembrandt works, Gordon says. This includes a self-portrait that was sold in July 2020 for £14.5m (with fees) against a £12m-£16m estimate. An oil sketch for a head of Christ sold in 2018 for £9.5m (with fees, est £8m-£10m) and was bought by the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Another Biblical work by Rembrandt, the panel painting Abraham and Angels (around 1646), was offered in 2021 at Sotheby's in New York. According to Gordon, while it was withdrawn, it was sold privately shortly afterwards, "reportedly in the region of $20m".
Christie's holds the world auction record for Rembrandt, which was set in 2009 when Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo sold for €23.2m (with fees).