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Rembrandt drops disguise

London, March 11: A Rembrandt self-portrait has been rediscovered after remaining hidden for more than 300 years under layers of paint applied by one of his pupils. It is now expected to fetch at least £5 million at auction.

Shortly after Rembrandt painted the portrait of himself in 1634, he allowed a member of his studio to transform the painting into a picture that no longer bore any resemblance to the Dutch master.

The unnamed pupil changed the young Rembrandt into a flamboyantly dressed Russian aristocrat sporting a tall red hat, earrings, long hair and dashing moustache with a tuft of hair beneath the lower lip. For the next three centuries it was regarded as a portrait of an unknown nobleman by an anonymous minor Dutch artist.

The process of discovering the painting’s true identity began in the mid 20th century when a curious owner arranged for some of the mysterious Russian’s attire, including the hat, to be removed. When an anonymous European private collector, father of the current owners, bought the painting in the 1960s, he took restoration a stage further by having the hair and moustache extensions taken off.

But his investigations stopped there and the painting was left in a hybrid state, with overpaint still concealing Rembrandt’s portrait.

In 1995 the present owners contacted Prof. Ernst van de Wetering, chairman of the Rembrandt Research Project, and asked him to examine the painting. Four years later the auction house Sotheby’s became involved.

George Gordon, one of Sotheby’s London-based Old Masters experts, said: “What struck us all was the quality of the painting in the area of the sitter’s lower face. These parts stood out against the rest of the picture in a way that strongly suggested that they were the work of a different and superior hand.”

Sotheby’s sent the picture to Martin Bijl, former head of conservation at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, who examined it using X-rays and infra-red photography. The paint pigments were analysed with the help of the Rembrandt Research Project.

Bijl and Prof van de Wetering then spent almost a year painstakingly removing more overpaint to reveal a striking and highly accomplished self-portrait of Rembrandt as a 28-year-old.

Rembrandt’s signature and the date 1634 had been painted into the underlying layer while it was still wet.

“The owners are very, very pleased,” said Alex Bell, head of the London Old Masters department at Sotheby’s, where the painting will be auctioned on July 10.

The painting is the first Rembrandt self-portrait to be auctioned for 30 years and only three are known in private hands.

"They thought it was possible that it was a Rembrandt but it was more of a hope than a probability as far as they were concerned."

Art historians have long been puzzled by the large number of self-portraits produced by Rembrandt and assumed that this was the result of an introspective search for truth. But the discovery suggests that he produced them for commercial reasons and that if they failed to sell he would either paint over them himself or tell his students to do so.

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