A Painting Originally Valued at $15,000 Turned Out to Be a Rembrandt. Now, It Could Sell for Millions

The hand behind the brush can make or break a painting’s worth—especially when that hand belongs to a legendary Dutch master

Rembrandt's The Adoration of the Kings
Experts used X-ray and infrared imaging to determine that Rembrandt painted The Adoration of the Kings (circa 1628). Sotheby's

In 2021, a 9.6- by 7.3-inch painting attributed to a close associate of Rembrandt’s was valued at around $15,000. Now, after months of research, experts say the legendary artist himself painted the piece—which could fetch up to $18 million at auction later this year.

Titled The Adoration of the Kings, the dark, practically monochromatic painting depicts the biblical scene in which three wise men shower the newborn Jesus with gifts. “Very few narrative paintings by Rembrandt remain in private hands, making this an opportunity for a private collector or an institution that is as rare as it is exciting,” says George Gordon, Sotheby’s co-chairman of old master paintings, in a statement from the auction house, per Tatler’s Marie-Claire Chappet.

According to Gordon, who led the new research, the painting includes details often seen in Rembrandt’s early works, such as “strange, glum faces and limbs painted in a single brushstroke.”

CNN’s Lianne Kolirin reports that the earliest known reference to the painting is a 1714 inventory of an Amsterdam collector. After changing hands a few times in the early 1800s, the work disappeared from the records. It resurfaced in the 1950s, when it was acquired by the Dutch collector Johannes Carel Hendrik Heldring. At that time, prominent art historians thought it was an early Rembrandt.

Several years later, the consensus among experts changed. When German art historian Kurt Bauch compiled a catalog of Rembdrandt’s works, he didn’t include The Adoration of the Kings. In the 1980s, when Heldring’s widow sold the painting, Christie’s attributed it to a member of Rembrandt’s circle, per the Art Newspaper’s Kabir Jhala.

Christie’s sold the painting again in 2021, valuing the work at only €10,000 to €15,000 ($10,600 to $15,800). Still, the suspicion that the Dutch master could have painted it was enough to drive the final price to €860,000 ($908,000)—more than 50 times its original estimate.

After that sale, the buyer reached out to Sotheby’s, hoping to learn more about the painting’s origins. For 18 months, experts conducted infrared and X-ray imaging and consulted with scholars, ultimately concluding the work was Rembrandt’s.

The Adoration of the Kings will go to auction once again in early December. This time, Sotheby’s expects it to fetch between £10 million and £15 million ($12.2 million and $18.3 million).

The rediscovered work—now dated to around 1628—sheds new light on the famous artist. Rembrandt painted it when he was living in the Dutch city of Leiden during his 20s, which was a critical period of the artist’s life.

“It adds to our understanding of Rembrandt at this crucial date in his development and career, when he was clearly very ambitious and developing very quickly as an artist,” Gordon tells CNN.

Experts have also gained new insight into the artist’s process. The new imaging studies revealed that Rembrandt repainted the work several times, altering how the heads were positioned to heighten suspense and making changes to baby Jesus’ halo and the Virgin Mary’s headdress.

“This sophisticated painting is in equal measure a product of Rembrandt’s brush and his intellect,” says Gordon in Sotheby’s statement. “All the hallmarks of his style in the late 1620s are evident both in the visible painted surface and in the underlying layers revealed by science.”

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