The auctioneer realised that he might have undervalued the small gilt-framed portrait of a laughing man when the bidding opened at £4,000, more than twice his original estimate.
By the time the hammer fell on Lot 377 about 15 minutes later, a new record of £2.5 million had been set for a painting sold in a provincial saleroom. Although the oil painting was catalogued as the work of an unknown “follower of Rembrandt”, bidders around the world were convinced that it was a genuine self-portrait by the great artist.
Philip Allwood, the auctioneer, said that the atmosphere in the saleroom was “electric” as the bidding passed £1 million in increments of £50,000. “Once the price went above £1 million the whole place fell silent,” he said. “When it topped £2 million you could hear a pin drop. Once the hammer went down the whole place erupted into applause.”
The painting, which had hung in a Gloucestershire sitting room for at least a generation, was labelled as a portrait of Rembrandt. The seller told Mr Allwood that he had had it examined by art experts several years ago and been told that it was a copy.
Mr Allwood sought advice from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam but the results were inconclusive, so he placed the modest estimate of £1,000 to £1,500.
He got his first inkling that others were more confident when dealers began arriving at his auction room in Cirencester to study the work — measuring 24cm (9.5in) by 17cm (6.5in) — with magnifying glasses.
On the day of the auction several London dealers arrived by taxi from Kemble Station near by. Only something special would have tempted them to come out of their galleries in Bond Street. Three telephone bidders stayed in the race until the hammer fell at £2.2 million, making a total of £2,580,750 including buyer’s premium and tax.
Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606 and left a unique record of his life in a series of unvarnished self-portraits. About 40 are recognised as the work of his own hand, but others are believed to have been copies made by his students.
The portrait was labelled The Young Rembrandt as Democrates the Laughing Philosopher and was monogrammed HL. Rembrandt occasionally signed his work RHL for Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden.
Mr Allwood said: “I said immediately that it looked like Rembrandt’s own work but the owner assured me that someone had checked it out in years gone by and it was not.
“I looked at it long and hard over the next few months and in the end we got on to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They looked at the images we sent over and said they were fairly happy that it was not by Rembrandt but it was almost certainly 17th century and by a contemporary of his.
“On the basis that it was not a Rembrandt we made a very cagey estimate. How wrong could we be?”
Despite his reservations Mr Allwood e-mailed copies of the portrait to collectors around the world and featured it on the front page of the catalogue of Moore, Allen and Innocent’s October fine art sale.
Both buyer and seller have asked to remain anonymous. Mr Allwood said: “I believe the successful bid was made by an agent and I have no idea who the buyer was or whether they are based in the UK or outside.”
If the portrait is accepted as a genuine Rembrandt the buyer will have got a bargain. One painting fetched $30 million (£15 million) at auction in January.
Text and image by Times Newspapers Ltd.