What`s in a name? For this Rembrandt, a steep and rapid rise in price.

Artdaily_ In 2021, Christie’s put “The Adoration of the Kings,” a 17th-century painting, up for sale. It identified that dark-hued Nativity scene as by an artist associated with Rembrandt. Its estimated value at the time was $17,000.

But some bidders thought the painting, no bigger than a sheet of paper, was an undiscovered treasure that might actually be by Rembrandt. The sale price was $992,000.

Two months ago — just two years after the last sale — the painting was auctioned again, this time at Sotheby’s. It was listed as by Rembrandt himself, and the price soared. The sale price this time was $13.8 million.

The meteoric escalation in value is striking evidence of just how much authenticity (who is said to have made a work) matters more than aesthetics (what it looks like) when it comes to predicting what a painting might be worth.

It is also a reminder of the power of connoisseurs. The dramatic change in value came about only because some experts decided the painting was by Rembrandt. But even today, others are not convinced that “The Adoration of the Kings” is really by that master.

Reattributions Happen

In 1973, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City reattributed about 300 paintings, roughly 15% of those in its European collection. One of the downgraded was a portrait of Philip IV that had been listed as a Diego Velásquez. Nearly 40 years later, the museum changed its mind and switched the attribution back to Velázquez, saying a cleaning revealed unmistakable characteristics of that artist’s technique. The painting was hung, once again, among other old masters.

But when attributions change, often so do values. For example, when the “Salvator Mundi,” a portrait of Christ that had been cataloged since 1900 as by an artist who worked in Leonardo da Vinci’s studio, was sold in the mid-2000s, the price was less than $10,000. Reattributed to da Vinci, it sold in 2013 for $83 million and then again for $127.5 million. Although some experts still harbored doubts about its authenticity, the painting set an auction record in 2017, selling for $450.3 million after an intensive marketing campaign by Christie’s.

“Adoration,” thought to have been painted around 1628, has at various times in its 400-year life been viewed as a work by Rembrandt. In its catalog, Sotheby’s noted that the work was described in 1822 as “an extraordinary fine specimen of the master,” and it was exhibited as a Rembrandt in the 1950s.

But Rembrandt’s authorship was contested in 1960 by a German art historian, Kurt Bauch. (Sotheby’s said he had looked only at a photograph of the painting.) Three years later, it was offered for sale by Sotheby’s as a Rembrandt but went unsold. In 1985, the painting came back on the market, at Christie’s, and this time it was sold — but only as a work from the “circle” of Rembrandt.

It was still viewed as “circle” of Rembrandt in 2021, when Christie’s put the work up for sale in Amsterdam. In the Christie’s catalog, Dutch curator Christiaan Vogelaar said “Adoration” recalled the work of both Willem de Poorter, believed by some to have been an apprentice to Rembrandt, and Jan Adriaensz van Staveren. Bidders, though, clearly thought it could be by the master, and the price rose to 860,000 euros, or $992,000.

A Question of Authenticity

Sotheby’s devoted a 62-page catalog just to “Adoration,” and detailed its rigorous, 20-month effort that led to the reattribution, including X-ray analysis and infrared imaging. The auction house thanked seven experts who had viewed the painting and shared their thoughts.

But on the day of the sale, Jorgen Wadum, who worked at the Mauritshuis in The Hague and was the head of conservation at the national gallery of Denmark, sent a letter to Sotheby’s that noted “significant discrepancies” between “Adoration” and “early and authenticated Rembrandt paintings.” The letter was endorsed by a Rembrandt specialist and a conservator who is a specialist in 16th- and 17th-century works.

Christie’s has also stood by its attribution of “Adoration,” which it said was based on consultations with “leading independent Rembrandt experts.”

“It was not accepted as being an autograph work and was offered accordingly as from the circle of Rembrandt,” Christie’s said in a statement. “We understand that this remains the prevailing view.”

The Case for the Dutch Master

One expert who advised Sotheby’s, Volker Manuth, said he looked at “Adoration” over four days and became convinced it was by Rembrandt. He pointed to elements in the painting that he said show the Dutch master’s ability to add context to a moment in time.

For instance, Manuth said, a spade in the foreground of “Adoration” foreshadows a moment in the Bible in which Mary Magdalene sees Jesus just before his Ascension and believes he is a gardener.

“He is including part of the end as well as the beginning of the whole story,” Manuth said of the artist.

Sotheby’s cited many pieces of evidence in its catalog, including similarities between “Adoration” and a 1630 etching by Rembrandt, “The Presentation in the Temple With the Angel,” such as the cramped grouping of figures in both works.

The auction house also pointed to how Joseph’s ear in “Adoration” — “painted with a single stroke of white acting as a highlight” — resembles the ear in a Rembrandt sketch owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Another expert, Arthur Wheelock, former curator of northern baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said in an interview that he had been quickly convinced of Rembrandt’s authorship.

“I thought that the light elements in the painting and the way it flowed in made a lot of sense in terms of the way Rembrandt was working,” Wheelock said.

The art world relies on experts with a special form of discernment sometimes referred to as “a good eye.” That ability is often attributed to rigorous scholarship, familiarity with a large number of works and intuitive feel. Although it has come to include technology such as X-rays, connoisseurship is subjective and opinions are often not uniform.

“The ballooning Rembrandt oeuvre is a good example of the extremes of connoisseurs’ views,” Bendor Grosvenor, a British art dealer and historian, wrote in 2012. “Over a thousand works were attributed to him in the 19th century, but that fell to about 350 at one point in the 20th century.”

For decades, the last word on Rembrandt attributions was Ernst van de Wetering, the longtime chair of the Rembrandt Research Project. The project produced a six-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work that is widely seen as authoritative. It does not include “Adoration.” Some experts say van de Wetering’s death in 2021 opened the door for other opinions.

Last year, Christie’s sold two works after new research by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam attributed them to Rembrandt. In a lengthy article, the Dutch newspaper NRC reported concerns about the attributions of those works as well as “Adoration.”

Debates over Rembrandt’s authorship have long existed, said Anna Tummers, a professor at Ghent University in Belgium, who wrote “The Eye of the Connoisseur: Authenticating Paintings by Rembrandt and His Contemporaries.” She noted, though, that van de Wetering’s death had left “a bit of a void.”

When such an important expert is out of the way, “auction houses see more opportunities,” Tummers said in an interview.

The Case Against

In his letter questioning the attribution, Wadum cited a number of reasons he did not think the painting had been created by Rembrandt.

For one, he said the way the paint was applied in “Adoration” was not typical of the way the young Rembrandt built up paint, citing multiple examples.

Lines in a part of “Adoration” that Sotheby’s had described as “marked out rapidly with a sharp point” were too straight and edgy, he argued, and lacked “the small curls or hooks seen repeatedly in Rembrandt’s scratches — and drawings.”

Wadum also focused on the robes worn by the three kings.

The robe of the king farthest to the right, he said, “exhibits numerous white splotchy reflections, bordering on being excessive — almost uncomfortably reminiscent of Rembrandt.”

“The technique and application of paint suggest an artist working in the style of Rembrandt, yet constructing the scene differently,” he wrote, placing figures, not as he painted but in preconceived spots.

When “Adoration” went to auction in December, it was listed by Sotheby’s as having a guaranteed price, meaning someone had agreed to pay a minimum amount, if the bidding did not top it.

As it turned out, no one bid, and the painting was awarded to the unidentified guarantor at the price of $13.8 million.

George Gordon, co-chair of the auction house’s worldwide old masters department, said the lack of bids did not diminish his confidence in the Rembrandt attribution.

He provided a copy of the letter he had recently addressed to Wadum, the dissenter.

“I note that you find this painting to be ‘almost uncomfortably reminiscent of Rembrandt,’” Gordon wrote. “Has it not occurred to you that the most likely explanation for this phenomenon is that he painted it?”