Measuring just 16cm by 21cm, Rembrandt van Rijn’s Abraham and the Angels (1646) may be diminutive in size, but its price tag is anything but. Last publicly sold for £64 in 1848, the Old Testament oil painting is now expected to make $20m to $30m at Sotheby’s in New York in January.
The picture has been consigned by Mark Fisch, a trustee of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a deal no doubt sweetened by the fact that Sotheby's has guaranteed the work, effectively purchasing it. A third-party backer may yet emerge. Fisch bought the work from Sotheby’s senior vice president Otto Naumann along with Alfred Bader in 2005 for an undisclosed sum, likely to be in the £5m range according to the Dutch dealer Jan Six, who has made several Rembrandt discoveries in recent years.
According to Naumann, this is “one of the last opportunities to acquire an important painting by Rembrandt. Nearly all of the other paintings on this level... are in private collections in England”. One of only two Old Testament paintings by the artist to remain in private hands, the picture was central to the Frick Museum’s 2017 exhibition Divine Encounter: Rembrandt’s Abraham and the Angels. It is “almost certainly” the Abraham with the three angels by Rembrandt “described in a transaction in Amsterdam between two merchants on 28 March 1647”, Sotheby’s says.
So who are the possible buyers? Earlier this month, the painting went on show in Dubai where Sotheby’s has form. In 2018, the auction house unveiled a rare oil sketch portrait by Rembrandt in the UAE, which was subsequently acquired by Louvre Abu Dhabi. The painting's next stop is thought to be Hong Kong. Six says: “The last couple of Rembrandts that were sold on the market went to museums in Asia, so people are starting to understand that the well is drying up.”
The US tycoon Thomas Kaplan could be another contender. “It would be a perfect addition to his collection. Plus, it’s Old Testament and he loves the Old Testament,” Six says. Though the dealer adds: “Tom Kaplan and Mark Fisch both live in New York, they know each other. I’m sure the question of the sale will have come up. The only logical answer is that Tom probably thought, ‘not for me’.”
Whoever buys it, Abraham and the Angels is, Six says, “a pristine Rembrandt, signed and dated with a fantastic provenance. It’s the perfect cabinet picture you could wish for”.
Indeed, the late painter Lucian Freud, who admired Rembrandt a great deal and who also painted Fisch’s portrait, studied the Sotheby’s picture for three months in his studio in 2007. According to the catalogue, Freud even attempted to master its holy subject matter in an etching but abandoned the work, perhaps in acknowledgement "he could not improve upon what Rembrandt had done".