Sometime around 1650, the Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, now known mononymously, was at work on a sketch of a young man. His sloe-eyed model adopted a clasped-handed pose, while Rembrandt worked quickly in burnt umber and vermillion paint. He applied layer after layer, piling on more pigment even before the underlay was dry.
Then, when the sketch was finished—or as done as it was ever going to be—Rembrandt picked up the oak panel, perhaps to move it elsewhere in his studio. But the paint was still a little wet, and the great painter’s thumb may have left the two prints found along the painting’s lower edge.
These fingerprints, and the artwork itself—Study of the Head and Clasped Hands of a Young Man as Christ in Prayer—will go up for auction on Dec. 5 at Sotheby’s in London, with an estimated price of about £6 million ($7.7 million).
It’s the first time the work has been available in six decades, after years locked away in a private collection. Now, however, these fingerprints are drawing additional attention—though, as George Gordon, the co-chair of Sotheby’s old master paintings department, cautioned, no one can be completely certain that the fingerprints belonged to Rembrandt himself. “But the discovery of the marks in the original layer of paint along the lower edge make their connection to the artist highly credible,” he told the Guardian.
The fingerprints were first spotted by eagle-eyed conservator Michel van de Laar, when the painting was put on display in 2011 at the Louvre. His findings were published last year. The prints speak to the speed with which Rembrandt worked, and how much skill was necessary to avoid smudging the wet paint, he said. “The discovery of the fingerprints is further testament to the speed with which the work was likely executed, and provides fresh insight into Rembrandt’s complex but swift painting technique.”
Rembrandt seems to have worked with the same model on a number of occasions. This sketch is one of seven similar oil sketches portraying the man as Christ, though experts dispute whether all were necessarily done by Rembrandt.
This one, as the high sticker price suggests, is not in question, with its layered paint perhaps revealing the literal marks of a master.