Monday, January 11, 1999

$100 painting is assessed at $55 million

Discovery of Rembrandt enriches local art historian


Art is said to be food for the soul. It can also nourish the bank account. Buy an old painting for $100 Canadian and spend 18 years doing analysis and research to prove it is an undiscovered Rembrandt worth a minimum of $55 million U.S.

A 17th century painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds, executed jointly by Rembrandt Harmenzoon Van Rijn and Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp, his student, was bought in a St. Janvier antique shop in August, 1980, by local artist and art historian Georges Boka.

Boka, a Rembrandt expert who has studied The Master for 40 years and has written a critically-acclaimed book on Rembrandt's most famous painting — The Nightwatch — plunked down his $100 and walked out of the antique shop with what he initially thought was a Rembrandt-style painting .

However, when he examined the unsigned painting under a ultraviolet light in his art studio, he noted that it was fluorescent yellow, leading him to conclude that it was more than 300 years old. His examination also convinced him that the 10.6-inch-by-12.6-inch mahogany painting bore two hands — that of a master in the upper portion showing cherubim and a dove in a golden light; and that of a student in the lower right portion which portrays poor shepherds huddled around a baby and sheep.

Boka noted that the upper right back of the mahogany panel bore the interlaced monograms of two initials — RH and JL — which he believed stood for Rembrandt Harmenzoon and Jan Lievens. Boka was aware that Rembrandt and his partner, Lievens, ran a school in Leiden between 1625 and the middle of 1631. It would have been normal for a student working on a painting in their school to etch the initials of the owners on the back to denote that the work belonged to the studio.

To prove his case, Boka spent thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars during the last 18 years amassing both scientific and analytical evidence which has won the support of some of the most prestigious members of the international art world.

But doing business in the art world does not come cheap. Boka had to borrow "substantial" amounts of money from friends and business acquaintances to help finance his research. Those business investments are about to pay off big time for a handful of Quebec investors who believed in Boka's expertise.

The acceptance of the painting as an original Rembrandt has led the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama to include it with a collection of 81 Rembtrandt works on loan from The Rembrandt House Museum in The Netherlands.

The exhibition, which opens to the public on Jan. 22, will mark the first time that the newly-discovered Rembrandt has been put on public display. Joe Schenk, director of the Mobile Museum of Art, which boasts a permanant collection of over 5,000 works of art spanning 2,000 years, is delighted.

"We're really excited to have Mr. Boka's painting in our exhibition," Schenk said in a telephone interview. "It's extremely rare to discover a new Rembrandt. We're going to place it in the centre of the room. We're building a special walled chamber — a U-shaped space — to view the painting."

Boka will attend a black-tie affair on Jan. 21 and a news conference the next day to mark the launch of the Mobile exhibit and the official unveiling of his painting. Aside from the financial benefits which accrue from ownership of a painting assessed at $55 million U.S., Boka is being lauded by leading members of the U.S. art community as one of the eminent Rembrandt experts in the world.

Spencer A. Samuels, of Santa Monica, Ca., is recognized as one of the top experts on Old Master paintings, including Rembrandt. He was the personal art counsellor for the late Paul Getty, a noted collector of rare paintings who founded the Getty Museum in L.A.

After studying the painting and Boka's proof, Samuels concluded in August, 1998 that Boka's Adoration of the Shepherds "was of period and authentic" representing "a beautiful collaborated work by Rembtrandt and Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp."

He went on to say in a written opinion that "Mr. Boka has an understanding of Rembrandt, his style and his works to an unparalleled depth" and that he should "write a book sharing his great knowledge and experience with the rest of academia and the world."

Dr. Joseph A. Polizzi, a professor of art history who is listed in the international Who's Who, said in an interview from his Florida home that Boka's discovery "is significant in the world of art history" because it establishes that Cuyp was a student of Rembrandt's — something which experts had suspected for many years but for which they had no physical proof until now.

"It's an enchanting painting," Polizzi said. "I was particularly taken by what is ascribed to Rembrandt himself in the upper left-hand corner...the lighting effect ...the microscopic size of the angel heads rendered with one stroke of the brush. Only a Master could do something like that." Polizzi said that after reading Boka's 1994 book, Rembrandt's Nightwatch: The Mystery Revealed he wasn't surprised that Boka had the expertise on Rembrandt to put together the proof to support the authenticity of the newly-discovered painting.

The book reveals the age-old secret of why Rembrandt inserted 32 characters onto the canvas of his most famous painting, rather than the 18 militiamen he had been commissioned to portray. Polizzi described it as a "scholarly" analysis "never done before."

John Harrington, a well-known collector who himself owns a Giorgione and a Da Vinci worth hundreds of millions of dollars, said in a telephone interview from his home in Venice, Fla. that Boka deserves credit for proving his case in what he called the "treacherous business" of art.

Among the obstacles Boka had to overcome were initial incorrect conclusions by both Sotheby's and Christie's that the painting was about 75 years old. Subsequent carbon dating paid for by Boka proved that the wood paneling from the painting originated around 1490.

"The art world is supposed to be full of people with poise, polish and savoir-faire," said Harrington, who was given a private viewing of Boka's painting recently. "But it's just not the case. They're the biggest bunch of hypocrites that ever lived. Boka is like a breath of fresh air in the arts. Everything he's shown me so far has been absolutely correct. He's very sharp. He's a walking, talking symbol of taste in art."

Dr. Walter C. McCrone, of the world-renowned McCrone Research Institute of Chicago, used polarized light microscopy to study the paint pigments in Boka's painting. He found they contained the same impurities and the same grinding of colors as those contained in another Rembrandt painting of the same period entitled The Incredulity of Thomas.McCrone said in a telephone interview from Chicago that Boka's discovery "has attracted attention in the art world."

It has also captured the attention of moneymen such as Jean-François Bastien, Business Development Manager for the trust division of the Bank of Montreal for western Quebec.

The Bank of Montreal is working on putting together a bridge financing package for Boka through it Harris affiliate in Chicago in order to give him working capital to generate financial spinoffs from the painting, such as the production and sale of lithographs.

"It's not a conventional dossier," Bastien said in a telephone interview from Hull. "We're interested in working with Mr. Boka to get things rolling as quickly as possible."

What makes the business of art even more attractive to bankers such as Bastien is the tremendous potential for a painting such as Boka's Adoration of the Shepherds to increase in value exponentially.once it is known to the public.

Eric Fintzi, director of Belgo Restorations of Marina del Rey, Ca., is a well-respected conservator and member of the American Institute of Conservation, who has studied Boka's painting. He says an evaluation of $55 million U.S. is "very conservative."

"A painting of the rarity of Rembrandt-Benjamin Cuyp could reach over $100 million," once it is more widely known and accepted, he said in a telephone interview from California. "Mr. Boka's proof is as solid as the Rock of Gibraltor.Boka is now an indisputable expert on Rembrandt."

Boka, himself an accomplished artist who lives in a 170-year-old farmhouse in St. Eustache, is taking all the hoopla in stride. His biggest problem these days is finding a tuxedo big enough to accommodate his ample girth for the black-tie affair in Mobile later this month.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.