Fake or real deal?

Genuine or copy? Opinions have changed.

The commanding male portrait shown here, previously thought to be a copy, is now being offered for sale at the European Art Fair at Maastricht, Netherlands, as the work of Frans Hals, one of the most remarkable Dutch portrait painters of the 17th century.

It represents the Haarlem burgomaster Pieter Jacobsz Olycan. Hals specialized in portraits of men whose civic importance shows unmistakably in their stance and facial expression. Although much of his work may have been lost - it wasn't until the mid-19th century that the power and deft skill of his work was appreciatively reassessed after years of obscurity - what remains are more paintings of men than women.

In the case of Olycan, a portrait of his wife that has been paired with it is considered of lesser quality and is not attributed to Hals. The linking of the two paintings may have discouraged experts from recognizing the male portrait as a Hals. But there were other misleading features that persuaded even Seymour Slive, author of Hals's catalogue raisonné in 1974, to call it a copy.

The picture was bought at a London auction in 1967 by art dealer Leonard Koetser of Zurich, Switzerland. He was convinced it was by Hals. But it has taken years of research and restoration, most recently in 2005, before a consensus was reached. Experts at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Claus Grimm, Pieter Biesboer,and Martin Bijl, restorer and expert on 17th-century Dutch painting, were all involved.

Mr. Koetser's son, David, also an art dealer, now has it for sale with a price tag of $12.5 million.

Technical evidence shows that the portrait was not originally the bust it now is. it was cut down from a three-quarter-length figure. The change was made in Hals's studio. The suggestion of a sleeve and hand, deftly brushed in by Hals but then "finished" by a less-skilful assistant, was added to establish its new composition. That was not the only change. Olycan's costume was altered to reflect his new appointment as burgomaster. He was given a fur-trimmed cloak, painted by Hals.

When Biesboer examined the painting in 2003, he agreed with Grimm, who gave his opinion at the end of the 20th century that here was a painting of notable quality marred by several weak passages.An ear had been incorrectly retouched.A restorer had mysteriously tousled the hair.Such flaws were corrected by fine retouchings in the 2005 restoration.

Today the painting has the appearance of a typical Frans Hals - a fresh, direct record, a deceptively effortless presentation of a character's powerful presence.

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