Rare Rembrandt Biblical Scene Could Fetch $30 Million at Auction

In this intimate scene from Genesis, the artist depicts the moment that Abraham’s wife Sarah learns she will bear a son

A panel depicting a man with wings sitting in the center of the frame, illuminated by a light source that seems to come from within himself, surrounded by two other travelers, an elderly Abraham and Sarah peeking out of the door of the house
This small oil-on-panel work by Rembrandt, Abraham and the Angels (1646), is expected to sell for upward of $20 million. Courtesy of Sotheby's

When Rembrandt van Rijn’s Abraham and the Angels last appeared at auction, in 1848, it sold for £64 (around £7,670, or $10,500 USD, today). Come January, when the petite painting returns to the auction block for the first time in 173 years, it’s expected to fetch a substantially higher price: a staggering $20 to $30 million.

As Anny Shaw reports for the Art Newspaper, the Dutch Golden Age artist’s 1646 painting is a highlight of Sotheby’s Masters Week sale, which is scheduled for January 22 to 30. Painted four years after Rembrandt’s most famous work, The Night Watch, the religious scene measures just 6.5 by 8.375 inches, according to a Sotheby’s statement.

The panel depicts the events of Genesis 18, which finds Abraham—the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—and his wife Sarah welcoming three strange visitors into their home. One of the travelers, who is later identified in the biblical text as God himself, surprises an elderly Sarah by announcing that she will soon bear a son.

In 2017, the Frick Collection in New York City displayed the work in an exhibition dedicated to Rembrandt’s treatment of the scene. Per a statement, the show—titled “Divine Encounter: Rembrandt’s Abraham and the Angels”—highlighted the artist’s skillful use of light and movement to single out the traveler-turned-God. Seated in the center of the frame, the figure makes a subtle but powerful hand gesture, pointing toward Sarah, who stands tentatively in the doorway.

Rembrandt paints the scene at nighttime and illuminates the central subject’s face as though he is being lit from within. The “gesturing figure at the center of the composition neither receives light from an external source nor radiates light in the form of a halo or aura,” notes the Frick. “Instead, the substance of his body turns into light.”

According to the Frick statement, Rembrandt began to “[shift] away from the dynamic movement of his earlier work towards imagery characterized by stillness and calm” in the late 1630s and 1640s.

The statement continues: “These are the defining qualities of the artist’s [Abraham and the Angels] of 1646, in which a momentous episode of divine revelation unfolds in the most hushed of ways—dramatic action replaced by subtle gesture and an astonishing luminosity, all within a panel measuring fewer than nine inches wide.”

Of the 136 religious scenes that Rembrandt crafted during his lifetime, just 29 represent events from the Old Testament, Sotheby’s reports. Of these Old Testament scenes, just two—Abraham and a portrait of King Uzziah stricken with leprosy—remain in private hands.

The sale marks “one of the last opportunities to acquire an important painting by Rembrandt,” Otto Naumann, Sotheby’s senior vice president, tells the Art Newspaper. “Nearly all of the other paintings on this level ... are in private collections in England.”

Researchers have successfully traced the patronage of this small painting, which traveled from Rembrandt’s studio in Leiden across Europe. Previous owners include Rembrandt pupil Ferdinand Bol; 17th-century Amsterdam mayor Jan Six; and American painter Benjamin West, who lived in England for much of his life.

A pared-down portrait of a young Florentine man by Sandro Botticelli joins the religious scene as headliners in the upcoming sale. That portrait, which dates to the 1470s or 1480s, could sell for as much as $80 million—the largest-ever estimate set by Sotheby’s for an Old Master painting, as Mark Brown reported for the Guardian in September.

“Our Young Man is 550 years old, yet he looks like he could have strolled into our galleries this morning,” George Wachter, Sotheby’s co-chairman of Old Master paintings, told the Guardian at the time. “He is a true beauty for the ages.”