A Painting Stolen in East Germany’s Biggest Art Heist May Be a Rembrandt

An exhibition at Schloss Friedenstein addresses two art history mysteries: one about the 16th-century Dutch portrait and another about the 1979 theft

A portrait in a gilt frame of an elderly man with a scraggly beard, graying hair and wearing a simple dark garment
New research suggests this portrait of an old man was painted by Rembrandt himself. Photograph by Lutz Ebhardt / Courtesy of Schloss Friedenstein

On a stormy night in December 1979, thieves broke into Friedenstein Castle in Gotha, Germany, and escaped with a spectacular haul: five paintings by European Old Masters, including portraits by German painter Hans Holbein the Elder and Dutch artist Frans Hals.

The theft was the largest of its kind to take place in communist East Germany. Police interviewed more than 1,000 people, including all palace employees and their families, to no avail.

In recent years, some onlookers have compared the robbery to the infamous 1990 Gardner Museum theft, which is widely regarded as the worst museum heist in modern history. Unlike the still-unsolved Gardner burglary, though, the Friedenstein tale has a happy ending: After four decades of searching, German officials succeeded in tracking down the five Old Master paintings and returning them to the castle, as Konstantin von Hammerstein reported for Der Spiegel in 2019.

A Painting Stolen in East Germany's Biggest Art Heist May Be a Rembrandt
Hans Holbein the Elder, Saint Catherine, 1509–10 Photograph by Lutz Ebhardt / Courtesy of Schloss Friedenstein

Details about the 1979 case continue to emerge today. This month, in a catalog for a newly opened exhibition about the theft, Friedenstein researchers raised provocative—but unconfirmed—answers to two long-standing mysteries surrounding the heist, reports Catherine Hickley for the Art Newspaper.

Most notably, curator Timo Trümper tells the Art Newspaper, he has reason to suspect that one of the five stolen works is much more valuable than previously thought. Dated to between 1629 and 1632, the portrait of an elderly man was long thought to be the work of either Jan Lievens or Ferdinand Bol, two contemporaries of famed Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. After completing an analysis of the painting, however, Trümper has come to the conclusion that Rembrandt himself may have created the portrait.

Bol’s signature on the back of the canvas has long been viewed as proof of his authorship. (According to the Rijksmuseum, Bol studied in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam studio before setting up his own studio in 1642. Many of his early works strongly adhere to Rembrandt’s style.) But Trümper says the signature might instead signify that Bol owned the artwork. The younger artist could have come into possession of the painting after Rembrandt went bankrupt in 1656, the curator suggests.

Both the portrait’s skillful pentimenti, or underpaintings, and the quality of the composition suggest it was the teacher—not the student—who painted the work, writes Taylor Dafoe for Artnet News.

A Painting Stolen in East Germany's Biggest Art Heist May Be a Rembrandt
This copy of Anthony van Dyck's Self-Portrait With a Sunflower, completed by a contemporary around 1632, numbered among the five Old Master paintings stolen from Schloss Friedenstein in 1979. Photograph by Lutz Ebhardt / Courtesy of Schloss Friedenstein

Trümper’s theories have yet to be confirmed, he told reporters at a press event, and may not be proven either way for many years. The museum is currently studying the painting in preparation for a planned Rembrandt exhibition in 2027, per Artnet News.

The Harvard Art Museums hold a similar portrait attributed to Rembrandt in their collections. If the Gotha painting turns out to be a Rembrandt original, that could mean Harvard’s version is a copy, Trümper adds. Harvard’s gallery text notes that Rembrandt regularly created such artworks, which were “not ... formal portrait[s], but a study of a generic type and emotional expression.”

“It’s a question of interpretation,” Trümper tells the Art Newspaper. “We can be sure it originated in Rembrandt’s studio—the question is how much of it is Rembrandt and how much his pupils? We have already talked to a lot of colleagues. Half say, ‘No, it’s not Rembrandt, it’s one of his pupils.’ The other half say it’s an interesting theory and they can’t rule it out.”

The exhibition also raises theories concerning more recent events. In an essay toward the end of the catalog, journalist von Hammerstein turns readers’ attention to the enduring mystery of who committed the 1979 theft.

Police have never officially accused anyone of the crime, notes Tessa Solomon for ARTNews. But von Hammerstein argues that the heist was the work of Rudi Bernhardt, an East German train driver who supposedly smuggled the paintings across the Iron Curtain to a couple in West Germany. Bernhardt died in 2016.

On view at the Castle Museum through August 2022, “Back in Gotha! The Lost Masterpieces” traces the history of the 1979 theft and the subsequent recovery of the five masterpieces. The show also considers other times the castle has been looted or robbed, such as during World War II.

Many previously stolen and recovered works—including the five taken in 1979—are included in the exhibition. Meanwhile, dozens of empty frames symbolize the more than 1,700 items still missing from the castle’s collections, per the Art Newspaper.

“Visitors can expect extremely exciting and varied stories about glamorous objects,” says Trümper in a statement, per Google Translate.

The museum is also displaying historical documents related to the heist in the exhibition. With these resources at visitors’ disposal, adds the curator, “you can search for clues yourself.”