A Rembrandt portrait that had been protected by Columbia student protesters in 1968 and later sold by Columbia for $1 million is back on the market this year, with a price tag of $47 million. The story of the 1658 painting, Man with Arms Akimbo, has many lessons, starting with the folly of universities selling art to make money.
When radical students at Columbia occupied several buildings, including Low Library, the administration building, in May 1968 to protest university complicity in the Vietnam War, the painting hung in the office of then president Grayson Kirk. According to The New York Times, the student occupiers agreed to allow police to remove the painting to protect it.
Student radicals in 1968 were criticized as barbarians out to destroy the university and all that it stood for. But the students at Columbia protected the university’s Rembrandt—and then the university put it in storage, and sold it in 1975 in a secret transaction with a private collector. A painting that should have been on display disappeared from public view for the next forty years—in exchange for which the university got $1 million. So who were the real barbarians?
Universities selling art made headlines in 2009, when Brandeis announced it would sell off the paintings in the university’s Rose Art Museum, including works by de Kooning, Warhol and Lichtenstein, to make money for the school. Outraged protests from the university community and the art world led the trustees to back away from the decision. Columbia’s 1975 sale provides an early example of the practice.