Multimillion-dollar question: 'Shall we call it a Rembrandt?'

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NEW YORK -- The break of contemporary culture with the artistic past is now so radical that most of us are no longer able to look at Old Master paintings.

A series of occurrences in Sotheby's $110 million sale last week lead to that astonishing conclusion.

One was the good old game which could be dubbed "Shall we call it a Rembrandt?" The master's œoeuvre goes up and down depending on the mood of those who know. From the early 20th century, when nearly 700 pictures were accepted, to the current revision process driven by the Dutch Rembrandt Research Project, the Rembrandt wagon has been riding a bumpy road.

This is a multimillion-dollar drama. If promoted to the lowest rungs of the Rembrandt order, your little picture may be graced with a $3 million to $4 million estimate, as witness the likeness of a woman that came up in Sotheby's sale on Thursday, Jan. 25. If deemed to belong to the artist's late period when he probed deeper than any Western artist into the human soul, a Rembrandt portrait might be estimated to be worth $20 million or $25 million, or more. Such was the case with the second Rembrandt in Sotheby's sale, "Saint James the Greater," to which the media paid the obligatory tribute of admiration.

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