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The Journey of Columbia University’s Rembrandt

Rembrandt, “Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo,” 1658. 

The Otto Naumann Limited gallery describes Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man with Akimbo” exquisitely on their website.  They write:

“Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man dated 1658 is one of the last works from his late career left in private hands and also one of the master’s least known paintings.  A boldly conceived work painted in his most assured and painterly later manner, it depicts the sitter frontally and three quarter length with arms akimbo. The unidentified sitter meets the viewer’s gaze with a steady and confident expression, bordering on defiance.”

The gallery notes that “the provenance of the painting is notable.”  “Notable” is an understatement.  “Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo” has a sale history worthy of a novel.  Otto Naumann Ltd. traces the sale history of the painting back to 1798, but the provenance becomes juicy in 1939 when Huntington Hartford II, the A & P supermarket heir, purchased the painting.  In 1955, he donated the painting to Columbia University.

April 23, 1968– Columbia University students occupied five university buildings for
one weeks to protest to the Vietnam War; 712 students were arrested and over 100
injured during a police scuffle.  The students, however, guarded the Rembrandt
hanging above the university president’s desk.

At Columbia, the painting became famous in 1968 when Vietnam War protesters protected the painting, on display above the university president’s desk.  Following the protest, the painting was put into storage for safe keeping.  In stayed there, somewhere in the basement lairs of Columbia, until 1975 when it was “secretly” sold to J. Seward Johnson, son of the founder of Johnson & Johnson, for $1 million.  When The New York Times uncovered the sale, Columbia officially stated: “Columbia feels this is an appropriate time to transform the painting into an income-producing asset by adding the proceeds of its sale to the university’s endowment.”

Upon his death in 1983, Johnson’s third wife, Barbara Piasecka Johnson, inherited the painting.  The painting never appeared publicly while the Johnson’s owned the work.  The painting remained out of sight for 41 years: from 1968, when the Vietnam War protesters saved the priceless cultural icon until 2009, when Ms. Johnson sold the painting at Christie’s London.

The 2009 Christie’s sale was teeth clenching.  According to Carol Vogel’s New York Times report, Otto Naumann and Alfred Bader, a Milwaukee art collector, worked out a plan to purchase the painting jointly.  Vogel claims that the pair prepared to spend $40.3 million with a deal from Christie’s for extended terms of repayment.  But, on the day of the sale Christie’s withdrew the extended payment plan, possibly with some inside information.  This left Naumann and Bader high and dry.

Steven Wynn in front of one of
his prized painting.

When the hammer fell, the final bid was $33.2 million including Christie’s fees.  The winner: Steven Wynn, Las Vegas casino mogul and flamboyant collector.  The price set a new record for Rembrandt.

The painting is now back on the market.  It was unsuccessfully offered for sale at the European Art Fair in Maastricht for $47 million.  And now, the painting is publicly for sale at Otto Naumann Ltd.

The change of hands has created a firestorm.  Particularly between Jon Weiner of The Nation and Judith H. Dobrznski of Real Clear Arts.  Mr. Weiner labels Columbia as “barbarians” and “foolish” for selling the Rembrandt for pittance in 1975 when it is now offered for sale in the $47 million range.  He stated: “All Columbia undergrads were, and still are, required to take Art Humanities, a survey of masterpieces of Western art, including Rembrandt.  The purpose is to instill a respect for this great tradition.  Apparently that respect was not shared by the Columbia administration.”  Mr. Weiner uses the Columbia transaction as an example to prove that the sale of artwork by university’s is always a bad idea, referencing the scandal that surrounded the Rose Museum at Brandeis University.

Ms. Dobrznski responded quickly the next day writing that “Weiner looks a bit foolish himself.”  She continues: “Did Columbia make a bad deal?  Perhaps.  But I’d have to see what other Rembrandts were selling for in 1974– comparables are what counts, not current prices.  More important, as far as I can tell from his story, Columbia’s tale has little relevance to other colleges or universities, with art museums, and deaccessioning.  Rather than shed light, Wiener has simply confused the issue.  The issue needs light, not heat.”

Whether you believe that it was morally wrong for Columbia University to sell the painting, or that they were cheated with the $1 million sale, this story reminds us that art is a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded.  Art is an “income producing asset,” as Columbia stated in 1975, no matter the circumstances.

Sources: Otto Naumann Ltd.; Carol Vogel, “Casino Chief Said to Own Rembrandt,” The New York Times, December 19, 2009; Jon Weiner, “When Universities Sell Art: The Case of Columbia’s Rembrandt,” The Nation, January 21, 2013; Judith H. Dobrzynski, “Columbia University’s Big Mistake? Or Misconceptions about Deaccessioning?” Real Clear Arts, January 22, 2013.