A painting stolen in the largest art theft in East Germany could be a Rembrandt | smart news

New research suggests that this portrait of an old man was painted by Rembrandt himself.
Photo 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 spectacular loot: 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 unsuccessfully questioned more than 1,000 people, including all palace employees and their families.

In recent years, some onlookers have likened the robbery to the infamous 1990 theft of the Gardner Museum, widely regarded as the worst museum robbery in modern history. Unlike the still-unsolved Gardner burglary, however, Friedenstein’s story has a happy ending: After four decades of searching, German officials managed to track down the five paintings by Old Masters and return them to the castle, such as Konstantin von Hammerstein reported for the mirror in 2019.

A painting stolen in the biggest art heist in East Germany could be a Rembrandt

Hans Holbein the Elder, Saint Catherine, 1509–10

Photo 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 exhibit about the theft, Friedenstein researchers released provocative but unconfirmed answers to two long-standing mysteries surrounding the heist, reports Catherine Hickley for the robbery. Art newspaper.

In particular, 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 believed. The portrait of an elderly man, dated between 1629 and 1632, has long been considered the work of Jan Lievens or Ferdinand Bol, two contemporaries of the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. After an analysis of the painting, however, Trümper came to the conclusion that Rembrandt may have made the portrait himself.

Bol’s signature on the back of the canvas has long been seen as proof of his authorship. (According to the Rijksmuseum, Bol studied in Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam before founding his own studio in 1642. Many of his early works are very much in line with Rembrandt’s style.) But Trümper says the signature could instead mean that Bol owned the the artwork was. The younger artist may have acquired the painting after Rembrandt went bankrupt in 1656, the curator suggests.

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

A painting stolen in the biggest art heist in East Germany could be a Rembrandt

This copy of Anthony van Dyck’s Self-portrait with a sunflower, completed by a contemporary about 1632, numbered among the five old master paintings stolen from Schloss Friedenstein in 1979.

Photo by Lutz Ebhardt / Courtesy of Schloss Friedenstein

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

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

“It’s a matter of interpretation,” Trump tells the art newspaper. ‘We can be sure that it originated in Rembrandt’s studio – the question is how much of it is Rembrandt and how much is his apprentices? We have already spoken to many colleagues. Half say: ‘No, it’s not Rembrandt, it’s one of his students.’ The other half say it’s an interesting theory and they can’t rule it out.”

The exhibition also evokes theories about more recent events. In an essay at the end of the catalog, journalist von Hammerstein draws readers’ attention to the enduring mystery of who committed the theft in 1979.

Police have never officially charged anyone with the crime, notes Tessa Solomon for: ARTNews. But von Hammerstein argues that the robbery was the work of Rudi Bernhardt, an East German machinist who allegedly smuggled the paintings across the Iron Curtain to a couple in West Germany. Bernhardt died in 2016.

On display in the Castle Museum until August 2022, “Back in Gotha! The Lost Masterpieces” chronicles the history of the theft in 1979 and the subsequent recovery of the five masterpieces. The show also takes into account other times the castle has been looted or robbed, such as during World War II.

Many previously stolen and recovered works, including the five from 1979, are on display in the exhibition. Meanwhile, dozens of blank lists symbolize the more than 1,700 items still missing from the castle’s collections, according to the art newspaper.

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

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


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