THE HAGUE — In 1934, a plumber from Dayton, Ohio, took a weekend trip to New York City and got drunk with some German sailors. When he awoke in the morning, his money was gone, but there were three rolled-up old paintings in his hotel room. One of them looked curiously like a Rembrandt.
Cloudy about the details of the night before, the plumber, Leo Ernst, returned home to Dayton, hid the paintings, and tried to forget the entire episode.
A few years later, however, his new wife, Anna Cunningham, stumbled upon the artworks in a closet, and asked Ernst what they were. “Just some old junk” he got in a scam, he told her.
This is one version of Ernst’s story — possibly fabricated — recounted in a new book by the art historian Gary Schwartz, and just one of the twists and turns in the 200-year saga of one of those paintings, “Rembrandt in a Red Beret.”
This month, that work, depicting Rembrandt when he was about 37, is being displayed in public for the first time in more than a half a century, at Escher in Het Paleis, a former royal palace.
The painting previously hung there from 1850 to 1879, when it was owned by Prince Hendrik of the Netherlands, who acquired it after the death of his father, King Willem II.
To coincide with the exhibition, Schwartz, a Dutch-American Rembrandt scholar, published a book, “Rembrandt in a Red Beret: The Vanishings and Reappearances of a Self-Portrait,” which used declassified government documents and formerly untapped sources to reconstruct the painting’s long and winding history.
Although it is undeniably an image of the 17th-century master, scholars have disagreed about whether the painting is a self-portrait; a portrait by one of Rembrandt’s star pupils, perhaps Ferdinand Bol; or a 19th-century imitation. In his book, Schwartz makes a case that earlier scholars unfairly discredited the work; he is convinced that it is an original.
“It was accepted unconditionally as a Rembrandt from 1823 to 1969,” Schwartz said in an interview at the palace. “It’s a canonical image, and no one else painted those kinds of images. I simply don’t see why it would be doubted.”
The painting’s current owner, Johann Eller, commissioned Schwartz to write the book. Schwartz said he didn’t know whether Eller plans to sell the painting, but its market value would increase substantially if the work were regarded as an original Rembrandt, made solely by the artist’s hand.
The Fine Arts & Exhibits Special Section
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Schwartz’s narrative of “Rembrandt in a Red Beret,” begins in 1823. First recorded in the collection of King Willem II, it was passed down through royal hands to a German grand duke in the early 20th century.
In 1909, that aristocrat, Wilhelm Ernst, loaned the painting to the Grand Ducal Museum, in Weimar, Germany. Then, in 1921, it was stolen.
“The thieves clambered up a museum lightning rod, removed a window on the upper story and thus got into the building,” reported a German newspaper at the time, adding that the burglars took several works. Another paper said the only item of real value taken was the “world-famous self-portrait of the Dutch master, a work from his best period, painted one year later than the famous ‘Night Watch’ in Amsterdam.”
A reward of 100,000 marks was offered, and later, a newspaper reported that two men, “the merchant Rost, and the locksmith Schumann,” confessed to the theft. But the artworks were not retrieved. Schwartz said he hadn’t been able to confirm these newspaper accounts.
Two decades later in Ohio, Anna Cunningham decided she could no longer keep her husband’s hidden paintings a secret. In 1945, she took “Rembrandt in a Red Beret” to the Dayton Art Institute and showed it to the museum’s director, Siegfried Weng. He asked to hold onto them for research; then, he wrote a letter to Francis Henry Taylor, then the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“Before me on my desk, I believe, is the much damaged canvas of the Weimar Museum’s Rembrandt self-portrait,” he said.
World War II had only recently ended, and Taylor suspected that the painting might have been among artworks uprooted during the war. He counseled Weng to send the piece to Charles Henry Sawyer, the head of the Art Looting Investigation Unit in Washington, one of the “Monuments Men.”
The U.S. government then demanded the confiscation of the work under the Trading with the Enemy Act, a law that had restricted the purchase of goods from Germany during wartime. The Dayton Art Institute invited the public to view the painting, before it was transported to Washington under armed guard.
“Rembrandt in a Red Beret” remained in legal limbo for 20 years, in the care of the National Gallery of Art. It was studied, described as “very badly damaged,” and partly restored.
In 1965, President B. Lyndon Johnson announced that he wanted to clear out American storage of works that had been seized in the postwar era. A 1967 act of Congress allowed for the picture’s return.
It was sent to Bonn, in West Germany, a U.S. ally in the Cold War. But because the work had been stolen from Weimar, which was then in communist East Germany, the government there lobbied for its return. An heir of Wilhelm Ernst, who had lent it to the museum in the first place, also made a claim. Ultimately, it went to her, and she sold it to Eller, the current owner, in 1983.
But the question remains: Is it a real Rembrandt? In the 1930s, the leading Rembrandt scholar of the era, Abraham Bredius, described “Rembrandt in a Red Beret” in a catalog of the painter’s works as “Self-portrait, 1643,” and noted it as stolen. But in the 1960s, opinions shifted. The art historian Horst Gerson updated Bredius’s Rembrandt catalog in 1969, listing the red beret picture as “a portrait by, or after, Bol,” referring to Rembrandt’s pupil.
The following year, experts from the Rembrandt Research Project, a group of Dutch scholars who examined all the master’s known paintings, were even more dubious: They suggested that it was a 19th-century imitation. Ernst van de Wetering, an art historian who later led the research group, re-examined the painting at the Rijksmuseum, and came to a different conclusion, published in 2005: that it was produced by Rembrandt’s studio, a workshop overseen by the painter that often sold works as “Rembrandts,” even if they were completed, or entirely painted, by his employees.
Jeroen Giltaij, the former chief curator of old master paintings at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, recently published a new catalog of all known and disputed Rembrandts, “The Great Rembrandt Book: All 648 Paintings.” He listed “Rembrandt in a Red Beret” as a studio work, as well.
He said he had gone to see the painting in The Hague two weeks ago. “But I could not attribute it to Rembrandt, on the basis of stylistic reasons,” he wrote in an email.
Rembrandt attributions are a tricky business, and they change with the times. In the eight published catalogs of Rembrandt’s works, the number of “autograph” paintings has varied from 614 to 330, Giltaij said. When their status is downgraded, their value can plummet; when they are deemed originals, it can skyrocket.
Several experts contacted by The New York Times, including Quentin Buvelot, the old masters curator at the Mauritshuis museum; David de Witt, a senior curator at the Rembrandt House Museum; Petria Noble, the Rijksmuseum’s chief Rembrandt restorer; and Otto Naumann, a respected former old masters dealer, all declined to comment on Schwartz’s attribution.
Schwartz said that part of the reason people may not see it as a genuine Rembrandt is that it is so badly damaged.
“It’s my damaged Rembrandt,” he said. “Because there’s so much missing and it has been painted over, it makes the wrong impression when you see it for the first time,” he said.
He added that other scholars at least now have a chance to see the work, read his arguments, and decide for themselves. “It was just astonishing to find all of the detailed information about the painting,” he said. “The question of authenticity was secondary to the story.”