An oil sketch of a young man clasping his hand in earnest prayer measures just over 25 cm — minuscule when you compare it to Rembrandt’s massive masterpieces that span from wall to wall in museums.
Yet two fingerprints are all it takes to cast the relatively obscure 17th century painting, Study of a Head of a Young Man, into the limelight. These were discovered while experts were carrying out restoration works. The prints, hidden under layers of paint, were revealed with the help of x-ray and infrared imaging.
Because of it, the sketch is expected to fetch a bid within S$11.2 million to S$14.8 million when it goes under the hammer at a Sotheby’s auction. The auction, happening early December, will also feature works by other old masters of the 17th century art world.
The Rembrandt work, portraying a young Jesus, is part of a series of sketches or studies meant for a bigger masterpiece. Previously kept in a private collection, the piece has made appearances in exhibitions at the Louvre and Rijksmuseum.
Experts believe that these are the Dutch painter’s thumbprints. While it is impossible to confirm as there are no other known records of such prints in other authenticated works, the same experts are confident that these were made when the painting was still wet 400 years ago.
Despite the lack of sources to compare and verify the markings, Sotheby’s is confident that they belong to Rembrandt. George Gordon, the co-chair of the auction house’s Old Masters department, says that “the discovery of the marks in the original layer of paint along the lower edge make their connection to the artist highly credible.”
It was also indicative of Rembrandt’s mastery and skill in painting, according to Amsterdam-based conservator, Michel van de Laar, who first discovered the prints in 2011.
“As in other colour sketches by the artist, the work was also determined to have been executed in one sitting – a practice known at the time as ten eersten opmaken – ‘to complete the whole concept in one go’, where additional colours and layers are hastily applied, even before the underlay has a chance to dry,” says van de Laar in a statement from Sotheby’s.
Thus, such paintings were prone to smudging, and marks from fingertips. Van de Laar adds, “It is a further testament to the speed with which the work was likely executed and provides fresh insight into Rembrandt’s complex but swift painting technique.”
When it comes to fingerprints, it is not unusual for historians and collectors to use this as a way to determine the authenticity in works. It may seem extreme to involve forensics, but in a world rife of counterfeits and where massive investments are synonymous with artworks, nothing is out of the question.
In 2009, a privately-owned painting La Bella Principessa, was thought to be a 19th century work of an unknown German artist until the discovery of a fingerprint deemed ‘highly comparable’ to the one left by Leonardo da Vinci in another work. Sold for just S$30,000 then, the painting is now estimated to be worth over US$160 million following its new and more prestigious attribution.
Still, hopeful bidders can be assured of the authenticity of Study of a Head of a Young Man. After all, despite the lack of comparisons for fingerprints, the piece scores a rather solid provenance and was last acquired in June 1956 by the grandmother of the present owner.
For future verification of Rembrandt works, these two fingerprints will make a world of difference.