Earlier this February, Pennsylvania’s Allentown Art Museum posted an Instagram video announcing that a work in its collection attributed to Rembrandt’s studio was in fact by the master himself. 

Sent away for a cleaning, layers of varnish and overpaint (a fancy word for touch-ups) were removed by conservators and like a particularly high-stakes episode of Antiques Roadshow, the portrait of a rosy-cheeked woman in exquisite lace from 1632 had its attribution changed for the better. The painting, which was previously worth thousands, now potentially has a multimillion dollar valuation.

A dramatic “rediscovery” along these lines is actually nothing new, dealers say. “It happens quite often,” says the British dealer Simon Dickinson. “Rembrandt is an artist who’s being reappraised all the time. I remember in my early days at Christie’s we sold a Rembrandt for a lot of money, and then it was not accepted by the [now-disbanded] Rembrandt committee. Then about three years later, it was re-accepted.”

This instability in the market is something insiders take for granted. In the most extreme case in history, a painting was bought at auction for a few thousand dollars and then, after cleaning and restoration, determined to be a work by Leonardo da Vinci. It sold in 2017 at Christie’s New York for $450 million.

For the broader public however, these questions of  connoisseurship can come as something of a surprise. The art world has literally had centuries to hash it all out. And unlike contemporary art, where values are determined by fashion and hype, the old masters market is supposed to be static. After all, by definition, you can’t make them anymore.

But with works’ attributions constantly in flux, how should the casual observer attempt to understand an artwork’s value?

“It can be quite a subjective area, and that’s what makes people nervous about old masters as a field,” says Charles Beddington, whose Mayfair old masters gallery specializes in Canaletto. “Opinions can change. But it doesn’t happen that often.”

Why Attributions Change
Many of the Italian and Dutch old master painters who are famous now—Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Canaletto and others— were just as famous when they were alive, and most had massive studios with dozens of painters churning out commissions.

Some of these commissions would be painted by the artists themselves; others would be executed by their studios, after which the artist would add some finishing touches; still others would be done entirely by the studio. (The same thing happens today with marquee artists such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst, and official Obama portrait artist Kehinde Wiley.)

On top of that, these artists would often have imitators—can’t afford a Canaletto? No problem, there were plenty of other reasonably-priced Venetian cityscapes to choose from.

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