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Stolen Rembrandt piece may not be a Rembrandt after all

Its owners say 'The Judgment' is a signed 1655 Rembrandt drawing worth $250,000. But it doesn't appear in the accepted catalogs of his work, and several experts say they've never heard of it.

August 20, 2011|By Abby Sewell and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • "The Judgment," a pen-and-ink drawing reportedly done by Rembrandt in 1655 and worth more than $250,000, was stolen and recovered last week. Several art experts say they've never heard of it.
"The Judgment," a pen-and-ink drawing reportedly done by Rembrandt… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

The dramatic theft of a Rembrandt drawing from an upscale hotel in Marina del Rey and its mysterious reappearance in a priest's office two days later has roiled the art world.

But the recovery of the piece is only the beginning to answering the myriad questions surrounding the case.

Among them: Is the work really a Rembrandt?

Some experts were skeptical of the piece's origins because they've never heard of this particular drawing. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which is investigating the theft, is also taking independent steps to confirm that the piece is actually a Rembrandt.

"We are also curious about its authenticity," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

According to the drawing's owner, the Bay Area-based Linearis Institute, the pen-and-ink drawing called "The Judgment" is a signed work of the 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, completed in 1655 and worth $250,000.

It disappeared from an exhibit at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Marina del Rey last Saturday night while the curator was distracted by a potential art buyer, and it surfaced Monday evening when an unknown person dropped it off in a priest's office at Saint Nicholas Episcopal Church in Encino.

None of the curators, art historians and other preeminent Rembrandt experts contacted by The Times since the theft were familiar with the drawing, including Gary Schwartz, one of the world's top Rembrandt scholars and director emeritus of CODART, the international council of curators of Dutch and Flemish art. Schwartz did not comment specifically on the piece's authenticity but said he does not believe the drawing has ever been published in scholarly literature on Rembrandt.

Most of the experts were reluctant to comment publicly on an art piece they had not seen in person or to wade into a potentially controversial issue, but several expressed doubts that it was Rembrandt's work, based on images of it published online.

Dr. Martin Royalton-Kisch, retired curator of Dutch drawings at the British Museum, said in an email that based on the style of the drawing, "It's clearly (in my personal opinion) a work of Rembrandt's school rather than by Rembrandt himself."

A number of experts pointed to a six-volume catalog of Rembrandt's work by Otto Benesch as the definitive compilation of drawings that experts generally accept as belonging to the master, although there is much disagreement even among scholars about which works should be included in the list of known Rembrandts.

The Times reviewed the Benesch volumes, and the drawing identified as "The Judgment" was not included. It also does not appear on a list of 70 authenticated, signed Rembrandt drawings compiled by scholar Peter Schatborn.

Typically, art dealers maintain a provenance, or detailed written documentation, of a piece's history and sales. It is unclear what documentation the Linearis Institute had on "The Judgment," although sheriff's officials said the piece was insured.

Representatives of the Linearis Institute have not responded to multiple phone and email messages requesting comment about the theft and seeking more information about the piece.

Whitmore said that at one point, the institute was not returning calls from investigators either.

The Sheriff's Department has one detective working the case full time and is considering adding more investigators. Early next week, officials expect to release a sketch and stills from surveillance video footage that may show a potential suspect, Whitmore added.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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