By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; B02
Soon after becoming president of Catholic University, the Very Rev. David M. O'Connell went in search of paper towels in his bathroom cabinet. Something on the bottom shelf caught his eye. Under a pile of junk, he found an old frame.
In the frame was a tiny etching of an old man with an unruly beard and billowing hat, composed of thousands of fine lines. His eyes are tired. His head nods toward his chest.
The piece is signed "Rembrandt."
O'Connell added the etching to his personal art collection and showed it off to visitors. A dozen years passed, and he never investigated whether the etching was truly created by the famous 17th-century Dutch painter and printmaker Rembrandt Van Rijn.
Then about a year ago, he called the university's archivist to his home and presented her with the mystery.
"We saw his name twice on the piece, but we still couldn't believe that's what this was," said Leslie Knoblauch, the school's records management archivist. "Who finds a Rembrandt randomly in their home?"
Knoblauch took the piece to her office, called an appraiser and sent him photos of the piece. He reported back that O'Connell's find was, indeed, a Rembrandt.
To show off the find, Knoblauch and her assistant, Paul Westley Bush, organized an art exhibit they decided to call, "Fine Lines: Discovering Rembrandt and Other Old Masters at Catholic University." It features other works -- drawings, etchings, engravings and woodcuts -- that have been a part of the university's art collection for years but have not been shown to the public. The free exhibit opened Monday and runs through May 24.
The process the university followed to authenticate the find was unusual, experts said, and the appraiser, Allan J. Stypeck Jr., said he does not remember seeing the etching itself. Stypeck said he relied on the photographs because he was assessing the piece solely for insurance purposes.
Stypeck, of Second Story Books in the District, said he did not spend "a substantial amount of time" on the appraisal because the print is not worth much money. Stypeck primarily appraises rare books and documents, but he said "Rembrandt-related" prints are common and can be evaluated easily.
"It's wasn't a complicated appraisal at all," he said.
Peter Fairbanks, an art dealer in San Francisco, said an appraiser needs "to see the imprint. They need to detect by personal inspection which edition this might be or if it's a reproduction of a print." Such etchings, even if authentic, can be worth from $2,000, if damaged, to $100,000.
But Jan Lewis Slavid, a California-based private print dealer, said she looked at high-resolution photos of the etching and is convinced that it is authentic. It is damaged and not worth much, she said.
She agreed, however, that an appraiser should examine the actual print.
The school will not say how much the etching is worth, only that it's not much.
According to the Web site of the Chicago Appraisers Association, Rembrandt had many students who used his signature, and prints continue to be made today using Rembrandt's old, worn etching plates.
Knoblauch's assistant, Paul Westley Bush, a doctoral student in medieval history, translated the fading French inscription on the back of the piece.
The words he could make out read: "The bust of an old man with a great beard seen about most of the face. . . . His head a little perched gives him . . . the attitude of a man who sleeps."
But one mystery remains: How did that Rembrandt find its way into a bathroom cabinet?
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