The Stolen Rembrandt: What’s Going On Here?

Rock Cellar Magazine

For those of you who are following the story of the stolen Rembrandt sketch “The Judgment” as closely as we are, there seem to be more questions than answers.

Art world insiders and casual observers alike love a good art-heist, and are no doubt hoping for this story to explode into a sexy, cinematic blockbuster – The Ritz-Carlton Affair – with Robert Pattinson as a young Pierce Brosnan.  Truth is, with the introduction of a “brainy hot babe” we’re almost there.

Rock Cellar Magazine has dug a little deeper to look at the different angles on this story, many of which haven’t been addressed.  There are still unknown facts to this story which we hope to help discover, and then share.

The Story to Date:
* On August 13th  2011, a sketch was stolen from a hotel auction at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, California.  A small pen and ink drawing, just 6” x 11” in a much larger frame.  Thieves distract the curator, take it off the wall, and skirt past security.

* The owners of the piece, the California-based Linearis Institute report the theft and claim that it is a work of the legendary master Rembrandt van Rijn, entitled “The Judgment.” They date it approximately 1655 and note a Rembrandt label/signature on its back. The Institute values it at $250,000 and says there’s an insurance policy taken out on it.

* Two days later, the piece shows up at an Encino Church, and is turned over to the appropriate law enforcement agency – in this case the L.A. Sheriff’s department.  Sheriff’s spokesman tells press that hotel security video is being scoured and stills or sketches of suspects should be released soon.

From this point onward, things get a bit squirrelly.
The Sheriff’s department talks very candidly to the press and public, but begins making some statements questioning the ownership and authenticity of the stolen sketch.  Suddenly this case seems to be more than solving a theft.  Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore states:  “Most important now is who owns it, and what is it that they own.”

In the following 3 weeks, nothing big hits the news, which gives plenty of time for speculation and even conspiracy theories to catch fire.  With nothing else to gnaw on but the Sheriff’s last statement, the attention turns to Linearis, who are rather tight-lipped, so are assumed to be hiding something.

The last bit of news was this: Linearis wants its Rembrandt back, and in a sense, drops charges on the theft. Meanwhile, Sheriff’s Department refuses to return sketch until Linearis can prove that they own “The Judgment.”For interested observers salivating for more, this stalemate is dull. Why is this happening?  And who is taking care of this Rembrandt?”

Rock Cellar Magazine wants to look at this from 4 angles – authentication, ownership-provenance, the scope of the police investigation itself, but first and perhaps most importantly – the protection of the art itself.

Part 1: The “Rembrandt” – Where Is It & Is It Safe?

Sheriff Dept. Clarenece Williams & Steve Whitmore With Alleged Rembrandt “The Judgment ” (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Rock Cellar Magazine: Where is the stolen Rembrandt being held?
L.A. Sheriff’s Department Spokesman Steve Whitmore: Well first of all, there is nobody yet who can confirm that it is a Rembrandt.  We’ve sent photos of this piece out to several art experts, and none of them have recognized it.  Experts in the Netherlands.  It is not listed in any catalogue of Rembrandt’s work.

RCM: Leaving authenticity aside for a moment, where is the piece now?
SW: Under lock and key.  Safely under lock and key until we determine who owns it.

RCM: In just the regular evidence room. Where – in Marina Del Rey?
SW: Yes.  In the Sheriff’s Department evidence room.

RCM: Just curious why it’s being held by Sheriff’s Department, as opposed to L.A.P.D.  It was found in Encino, correct?
SW: Yes, but the Sheriff’s Department has jurisdiction because the original theft took place in Marina Del Rey.

RCM: Is the artwork being specially handled in some way? For example is it being specially protected from say light, or dust? Humidity, temperature, etc?
SW:  Well it’s in its original frame; it’s sealed up in its original frame, behind glass.

RCM: You’re not worried that because of its age that it might be subject to deterioration from the elements?
SW: No, not at all.  They were displaying it openly in a hotel lobby, on a wall, in air, in light.  The conditions are no worse than that, in fact probably better and safer.

RCM: Yes, but as I understand it, pieces on display are just hung temporarily and then typically are put back in some specially protected environment. Have any art “experts” contacted you, or mentioned anything about storing old works of art?
SW:  We’ve consulted many art experts, and many have seen photographs of the piece.

RCM:  As part of your investigation, did you open it up, dust it for fingerprints, or get DNA, etc.
SW:  On the frame. Yes. We checked for fingerprints, but only on the frame.

RCM: Have any of these art experts expressed concerns or contacted you about the need for it to be under some special handling?
SW: No.  No one has mentioned it.

RCM: How about the owners – The Linearis Institute. Have they said anything about it?
SW: No, not to my knowledge.  Nothing.

RCM:  Linearis, or their lawyer haven’t mentioned anything about wanting to have this sketch specially cared for, other than that they want it back?
SW: No, not at all.

RCM: I understand that Linearis has dropped charges on the theft itself?
SW:  Yes.

RCM: So the only thing preventing them getting it back is that they need to prove they own it?
SW:  There is something called provenance.  They have not given us any information proving that they even own this work of art.  Not one piece.

RCM:  Right.  They’re claiming where they got it and how much they paid for it is confidential.  Can’t they just show some piece of paperwork, other than that?  Insurance forms, perhaps?
SW:  They have not provided us with anything showing ownership.

RCM:  How about their insurance paperwork, for example.  Would that be sufficient?
SW:  We have not been in touch with the insurance company and they haven’t contacted us.

RCM: So if Linearis can show that they own it, they get the piece back.  Simple as that?
SW: Yes.

RCM:  If they don’t want to have that ownership information publicly disclosed, what are their alternatives – to take it to court? Isn’t that what the lawyer is suggesting?
SW:  I haven’t heard anything about that. Yes, they could get a court order to try and get it returned.


Rock Cellar Magazine spoke with New York-based art conservator Paul Himmelstein (Applebaum & Himmelstein) about the care and protection of fine works of art, and in particular “The Judgment.”

Himmelstein, though unfamiliar with “The Judgment” says concerns over the protection of the piece are extremely valid.

“When pieces of this age and material are framed, great care is taken in how they are mounted and protected.”  Himmelstein notes that typically special Japanese hinging paper is used as well as special acid-free rag mat boards, anti-static Plexiglas, and other environmental protections.

It is unclear from photographs of the sketch whether these usual protections for antique works of art were employed in the mounting and framing of “The Judgment.”  A few art connoisseurs have noted that the brown paper backing, wire and hinges seem slightly atypical of the care usually given to similar types of rare works.

Yet “Even in a protected frame, with ultraviolet-screening Plexiglas and acid-free matting, works on paper are still susceptible to various conditions that could lead to their deterioration,” says Himmelstein.

After viewing photographs of the public showing of the sketch taken after its recovery, Himmelstein noted that the back was apparently opened, possibly by investigators, but more likely by the thieves themselves. “Of course having the backing opened and the buffered environment compromised could lead to additional harmful exposure to the elements.”

Himmelstein says that there are any numbers of factors that could contribute to a deterioration of a work on paper, many more than other types of fine art. These include particulates, light exposure, acid exposure, changes and degrees of temperature, changes and degrees of humidity, and even “off-gassing” – chemical fumes that may be emitted from nearby objects, such as furniture.

“The biggest worry for a work such as this is a change in humidity,” notes Himmelstein. “For example, if the storage room is air-conditioned during the day, but not at night, that change in humidity can lead to the introduction of mold.”  When asked how quickly a mold might be able to grow, Himmelstein answered “Immediately. One day.”

When asked what measures the Sheriff’s Department could take to best care for this sketch, Himmelstein volunteered that there are specially-manufactured non-acid boxes made for just this purpose – to keep the piece out of the light and free from deteriorative elements. But the key would be to insure that the humidity levels are low and constant.

Where is the outrage from the art world?  Where are the advocates who can speak out on behalf of this drawing?
Leaving debates over its authenticity as a Rembrandt aside for a moment, “The Judgment” is unquestionably a very old, delicate piece of art.  Whether it was done by the hand of Rembrandt himself, one of his studio’s students, or just some 17th century scribbler, this thing has value – historical as well as monetary.

If it is a Rembrandt, art experts agree it is worth far beyond its 250G insurance tag – in the neighborhood of 3-4 million dollars.   Every day it sits in limbo could harm it and its value, so this issue is indeed time-sensitive.

But even if it is not a real Rembrandt, it is still a fragile piece of history that its owners need and deserve to have protected.

Rock Cellar Magazine will follow this story as it develops.

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