A painting stolen in East Germany’s biggest art thief may be a Rembrandt | Smart news

A portrait in a gilded frame of an elderly man with a scratched beard, graying hair and wearing a simple dark robe

New research suggests that this portrait of an old man was painted by Rembrandt himself.
Photo by Lutz Ebhardt / Courtesy of Schloss Friedenstein

One stormy night in December 1979, thieves broke into Friedenstein Castle in Gotha, Germany, and escaped with a spectacular move: Five paintings by European ancient masters, including portraits of German painter Hans Holbein the Elder and Dutch artist Frans Hals.

The theft was the largest of its kind that took place in communist East Germany. Police interrogated more than 1,000 people, including all palace staff and their families, without success.

In recent years, some spectators have compared the robbery to the infamous Gardner Museum theft from 1990, which is widely considered to be the worst museum theft in modern history. In contrast to the still unsolved Gardner burglary, however, the Friedenstein narrative has a happy ending: After four decades of searching, German officials managed to trace the five old master paintings and return them to the castle, which Konstantin von Hammerstein reported for The mirror in 2019.

A painting stolen in East Germany's biggest art thief may be a Rembrandt

Hans Holbein the Elder, Saint Catherine, 1509-10

Photo by Lutz Ebhardt / Courtesy of Schloss Friedenstein

Details of the 1979 case continue to emerge today. This month, in a catalog for a newly opened exhibition on the theft, Friedenstein researchers raised provocative – but unconfirmed – answers to two long-standing mysteries surrounding the theft, Catherine Hickley reports for Kunstavis.

Most notable is curator Timo Trümper Kunstavis, he has reason to suppose that one of the five stolen works is worth much more than hitherto supposed. Dated to between 1629 and 1632, the portrait of an elderly man was long considered to be the work of either Jan Lievens or Ferdinand Bol, two contemporaries of the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. However, after conducting an analysis of the painting, Trümper has come to the conclusion that Rembrandt himself may have created the portrait.

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 setting up his own studio in 1642. Many of his early works adhere strongly to Rembrandt’s style.) But Trümper says that the signature may instead mean that Bol owned the artwork. The younger artist could have come into possession of the painting after Rembrandt went bankrupt in 1656, the curator suggests.

Both the portrait’s skilful pentimenti or sub-paintings and the quality of the composition suggest that it was the teacher – not the student – who painted the work, writes Taylor Dafoe for Artnet News.

A painting stolen in East Germany's biggest art thief may be a Rembrandt

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

Photo by Lutz Ebhardt / Courtesy of Schloss Friedenstein

Trumper’s theories have not yet been confirmed, he told reporters at a news conference, and may not be proven in any way for many years. The museum is currently studying the painting in preparation for a planned Rembrandt exhibition in 2027, pr Artnet News.

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

“It’s a matter of interpretation,” Trümper says Kunstavis. “We can be sure that it comes from Rembrandt’s study – the question is, how much of it is Rembrandt and how much his students? We have already talked to a lot of 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 not rule it out. “

The exhibition also raises theories about recent events. In an essay towards the end of the catalog, journalist von Hammerstein turns readers’ attention to the continuing mystery of who committed the theft in 1979.


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

At the Palace Museum through August 2022, “Back in Gotha! The Lost Masterpieces” traces the history of the 1979 theft and the subsequent restoration of the five masterpieces. The show also takes into account other times where the castle has been looted or robbed, such as during World War II.

Many previously stolen and restored works – including the five taken in 1979 – are included in the exhibition. Meanwhile, dozens of empty frames symbolize the more than 1,700 objects still missing from the castle’s collections, per. Kunstavis.

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

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


Give a Comment