Sotheby’s recent announcement of plans to auction a rare $80 million Botticelli portrait in 2021 has put a new spotlight on the Old Masters category. Now, the auction house has unveiled a biblical scene by Rembrandt titled Abraham and the Angels (1646), to be sold alongside the Italian renaissance work in January during the house’s Masters Week evening sale. The painting is estimated to sell for $20 million–$30 million.
The small-scale work, measuring at only 6 ¼ inches by 8 ¼ inches and dated 1646, is one of five biblical scenes by the artist still held privately. Made during the artist’s prime, the work depicts a scene from the book of Genesis in which three angels posing as travelers visit the elderly couple Sarah and Abraham to deliver a divine message that Sarah will give birth to a son.
“The subject of Abraham visited by three angels proved a fruitful source for etchings and engravings, but this was Rembrandt’s only painting of the story,” said George Wachter, Sotheby’s chairman and co-worldwide head of Old Master paintings. “With the vast majority of his biblical scenes in institutional collections, it’s extremely rare to see such a major work at auction.”
The present work is among the most widely studied Rembrandt biblical pictures. According to the work’s catalogue essay, this painting shows Rembrandt shifting away from the baroque stylings of his early work toward something more subtle.
When the painting was shown in 2017 at the Frick Collection in New York, curator Joanna Sheers Seidenstein said that the work shows “a new approach to pictorial narrative” for the artist. At that time, it was one of nine small-scale works featured in the Frick’s showcase centered around Rembrandt’s depictions of Abraham. Prior to that, the work was shown in a traveling exhibition devoted to Rembrandt at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004.
The work was last sold at auction in 1848 for just £64 at Christie’s, according to the work’s ownership record. Its first recorded owner in 1647 was Dutch entrepreneur Martin van den Broeck. It changed hands several times, and passed through the collections of Benjamin West and Sir Thomas Baring. For decades the work remained in the Heemstede-base von Pannwitz family collection through descent. It then went to the prominent Old Masters collector Alfred Bader in 2004, and from there it came into the hands of veteran dealer Otto Naumann, who is now Sotheby’s senior vice president and client development director. The present owner acquired it in 2006.
According to a 2005 report from the New York Times, the painting also appeared on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from a New Jersey collector, who bought it from Naumann privately for just under $20 million.
The painting is poised to reach the second-highest price for the artist. The current auction record for the Dutch master is $33.2 million for Portrait of a man with arms akimbo, which sold at Christie’s 2009. The second-highest auction price for Rembrandt is Portrait of a lady in black costume and a cap and collar, which sold at Christie’s London in 2000 for $28.8 million.
The news comes on the heels of Sotheby’s sale of Rembrandt’s 1632 self-portrait in July for $18.7 million, a record for a self-portrait by the artist. Saint James the Greater (1661) was the last biblical Rembrandt scene to come to auction in 2007. It sold for $25.8 million at Sotheby’s. More recently, in 2018, the Louvre Abu Dhabi purchased Rembrandt’s Head of a young man, with clasped hands: Study of the figure of Christ in a Sotheby’s London sale for $12.1 million.
Sotheby’s will showcase Abraham and the Angels in Hong Kong starting on October 3. The work will then travel to Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and London before heading to its final destination in New York.