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How “Adoration of the Kings” was re-attributed to Rembrandt and valued at $14 million

Adoration of the Magi, Rembrandt, infrared, Cropped

Sotheby’s | Provided via Press Release

V. M. Traverso - published on 03/17/24

Beyond attribution debates, the small oil panel stands out for its narrative power in depicting the moment mankind first met Jesus.

When the “Adoration of the Kings” made its entry during a Christies’s sale in Amsterdam in 2021, it was valued between $10,500 and $15,800. Two years later, it was valued in a Sotheby’s sale for $14 million. As chronicled in The New York Times, the journey of this painting’s attribution and re-evaluation shows how artwork’s value is driven more by high-profile authorship than by its actual artistic attributes.

As Sotheby’s explained, this 9⅝ x 7¼ inches oil on oak panel painting had previously been attributed to the Dutch master and described as a fine specimen of Rembrandt’s style, dating to about 1627 when the artist was in his early 20s. In the 1950s, it was exhibited as a Rembrandt. By 1985, following a few debates among art historians, it was sold at an auction at Christie’s as the work from the “circle of Rembrandt.”

Adoration of the Magi, Rembrandt
This 9⅝ x 7¼ inches oil on oak panel represents the moment mankind first met Jesus.

Between 2021 and 2023, Sotheby’s tasked a team of experts to conduct an in-depth analysis of the oil painting using X-ray and infrared technology as well as material analysis. The result of this in-depth study led the auction house to confirm that “Adoration of the Kings” is indeed the work of the Dutch master.

“All the hallmarks of his style while in Leiden, before he left for Amsterdam in 1631, are revealed both in the visible painted surface and in the underlying layers revealed by science,” said George Gordon, co-chairman worldwide of Sotheby’s Old Master paintings and drawings, who led the study and defined the painting as “in equal measure a product of Rembrandt’s brush and his intellect.”

Adoration of the Magi, Rembrandt, infrared
Sotheby’s studied the painting with X-ray and infrared technology and attributed “Adoration of the Magi” to Rembrandt, driving its value to $14 million.

Narrative power

As noted in The New York Times, experts at Sotheby’s point to details that seem to show Rembrandt’s known ability to add context to his subjects. For example, the spade in the foreground of the painting could be a reference to the Bible passage where Mary Magdalene sees Jesus after his resurrection and mistakes him for a gardener. Sotheby’s experts also point to similarities in composition between “Adoration of the Kings” and a 1630 Rembrandt painting titled “The Presentation in the Temple With the Angel.”

Shortly after this was announced, experts at Christie’s challenged this conclusion suggesting that the work should still be attributed to “Rembrandt’s circle.” As explained by Sotheby’s in a press release, debates about Rembrandt’s attributions are common given that the Dutch master produced a significant amount of paintings and that he worked with talented young apprentices, sometimes signing their work. 

Despite skepticism, the work was eventually presented at an auction in London last December where it sold for $14 million. Whether a Rembrandt or the product of one of his apprentices, the work stands out for its narrative power. As noted by British art historian Andrew Graham, the tiny panel represents a crucial moment in Christianity, the first time in which mankind met Jesus Christ.

“He takes one of the central themes of Christianity,” Graham says, “and compresses it into this tiny, quite dark panel that expresses the extraordinary nature of that moment.” 

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