407 The Rembrandt virus, the Syndics variant

Never would I ask you to pity the poor Rembrandt specialist. I regret not a moment of the years I have put into studying him. But besides the outreach of my publications and lectures, there is also inreach, which can be challenging. Read about the biggest painting I have ever been called upon to certify as a Rembrandt.

Hardly a month has gone by, over the past twenty years, when I am not approached by an owner or two of a painting, drawing or etching that they hope will be recognized as a valuable work by Rembrandt. The first time this happened was even longer ago, in the 1980s, after the appearance of my book Rembrandt, his life, his paintings. An impassioned French gentleman, Monsieur D*, began visiting my wife and me with a painting of a biblical narrative that was surely from the 1630s and related to Rembrandt, but was related more closely to Lambert Jacobsz or Jacob Adriaensz Backer. Nothing I said to him, none of the comparisons I showed him, could convince him that his painting was not by Rembrandt. He amassed a huge dossier of extracts from scholarly literature, press clippings, photographs, reports of technical investigations, and affirmatory expertises by restorers and art historians who were not specialized in Rembrandt. It was only a matter of time, he was sure, before people would come around to seeing things his way. On a visit to Paris, he took us out to a fancy restaurant for lunch, in the company of a friend who helped him on his quest. We liked him.

Monsieur D* was a representative of one subgroup of hopeful owners, the most serious kind. Needless to say, whatever the owners tell me and the advice I give them is confidential. However, there are cases when publicity is allowed or sought. One such contact, with another highly dedicated French owner, spawned a book, A Rembrandt invention: a new Baptism of the Eunuch, Leiden (Primavera Press) 2020.

Jacket design by Antoinette Hanekuyk

A fruitful cooperation with the owner allowed me to publish a complete, illustrated survey of Rembrandt’s depictions of that important iconography, placing the owner’s painting in its context of paintings, drawings and prints by and around Rembrandt. I was able to help get the painting into the Young Rembrandt exhibition in the Lakenhal, labelled “Rembrandt and workshop,” as in the book.

Jacket design for dummy by Victor de Leeuw

In November a much bigger book is coming out, to be published by WBOOKS, on a self-portrait that I am convinced was painted by Rembrandt. (The title has been changed. It’s now Rembrandt in a red beret: the vanishings and re-appearances of a self-portrait. Loekie convinced me not to call his cap a toque.) The owner of this painting is in another subgroup than the two above. He has been lying low for forty years, not performing research and keeping the painting out of sight. There are undoubtedly more like him, about whose paintings we remain ignorant.

The variant I wish to share with you today is a top-of-the-bill example of the sizeable category of people who own a painting with the same composition as an accepted Rembrandt. Most members of this demographic are innocent souls who have bought a painting in a junk shop, discover that it is signed Rembrandt and ask me if it really is by him. They are grateful when I lead them to the original. But then there are the not so innocent owners who are out to convince the world that their version is the real one. Among the originals that they wish to displace are the Lamentation of Christ in the National Gallery in London and the Saskia in Kassel. Both are favorites for copyists, but this has not dissuaded the owners from putting major effort into establishing their claims of priority. After all, reversals of this kind have been known to take place. See the early Rembrandt self-portraits in Schwartzlist 401.

And then there is the exceptional case I can share with you today. To my continuing astonishment, I have been asked to confirm that a private collection in Switzerland contains an earlier version of Rembrandt’s Syndics of the drapers’ guild than the one in the Rijksmuseum, which has been owned by the city of Amsterdam since it was created in 1662. This version, I am told, was painted a year before that one, in a private commission from one of the sitters. Although the evidence for this is non-existent, an art historian and museum director from Atlanta has put his name to a ninety-one-page booklet, which he calls a “prospectus,” a sales brochure. It begins:

Here is the painting in question, which looks like quite a good copy, although covered in darkening varnish, in the same size as the canvas in the Rijksmuseum.

And here is the Syndics:

The main argument that this exact replica of the Syndics must be by Rembrandt is simply that it is so good that no one but Rembrandt could have painted it.

The provenance, which any interested party would like to know, is reported thus:

No documentation is supplied for any of these claims. The former owners are said to have had their family home in Schliengen, Baden-Württemberg. Various details about them are provided, but not their name, which “remains undisclosed to protect, and in respect for, the living family members.” Two other versions of the acquisition are provided in an “expert opinion” of 2014:

By “acquainted” the writer must have meant acquired. He concludes with a third account of the provenance: “About 150 years in a private house in Amsterdam of one of the ‘Staalmeesters’, and after repairing and reframing about 200 years in private possession by a Swiss owner.” This account leaves no room for a very wealthy and powerful family from Germany, Jewish or not.

Most such pitches are motivated by sheer cupidity. For this one it is out of the question. The owner, Comtesse de L., we have been told by her representative, plans to donate the proceeds from the sale (at the reduced price of €80,000,000) to good causes. Despite this, I am afraid that I may have lapsed from my own standards of gentlemanliness in my correspondence with the countess’s intermediaries, an unfortunate character flaw that has manifested itself in similar circumstances in the past and that I should be working on.

That the house in which the painting was found was built in 1910 fits into an alternative provenance. In 2017 staff members of Kunstmuseum Basel were invited to inspect the painting. What they found was plain and simple proof that it was a copy after the Syndics in the Rijksmuseum. On the back of the canvas

they found this stamp:

This image might be a bit hard to read, but the Basel curators found other examples in which the lettering was clearer. One is a copy after a painting by Gabriel Metsu in the Rijksmuseum that carries the stamp twice, once on the canvas and again on the stretcher. When it was offered for sale, this picture of the back was put up on internet:

The stamp on the stretcher:

It says RM (for Rijksmuseum) COPIE NAAR (copy after) N (for the inventory number, not filled in on the Metsu or the Syndics). It was clearly a condition of the museum that such copies be stamped in this way.

The Basel curators thought that the copy was made around 1900. I would go for 1910, hypothesizing that it was ordered by an admirer of the Syndics to be placed in his new house. What can one say to people who, having been shown by experts that a painting of theirs is a copy with indisputable proof of this kind, continue to try to sell it as an original by Rembrandt for tens of millions? (As it happens, on 21 July I was approached once more, by a different party, with a request to certify an attribution of the painting to Rembrandt.) Is gentlemanliness really the right tone of voice?

© Gary Schwartz 2022. Published on the Schwartzlist on Rembrandt’s birthday, 15 July 2022. On 21 July the conclusion was rewritten, with the images kindly provided by Kunstmuseum Basel. These include not only the stamps on the backs of the two paintings but also the photo of the Basel copy itself, above. The photos were made by Martin P. Bühler.

Now that the damage has largely been repaired and I have been able to process most of the shock and pain, I can face up to showing you what I saw in a room in my library when I opened the door in the first weekend of April.


A bookcase that had been standing undisturbed on the same spot for fifty years had fallen down and dumped a thousand or so books on the floor and table. After a delay due to sheer distress I got to work removing the books to another room.

Fortunately, this was not the shelf with my seventeenth-century books. Remarkably, the damage to the books themselves was limited. A book is built better than you might think and most of them show no sign of what they have been through. Here are some of the victims. They have lost whatever value they had in the second-hand market, but they are still usable for research.

Let me reassure those of you who have expressed concern that things are going better now.

With help from Loekie and our son, we got the room cleaned up and the bookshelf rebuilt. I am now moving the books back in, my fallible memory surprising me by being pretty good at knowing on which plank each one belongs. One bright spot in these events is that I get to take all my books in hand again, and have found a few that I thought were lost. I show you these pictures to elicit sympathy, but also to warn you to anchor your bookshelves to the wall.

Many thanks to the anonymous reader who sent me a copy of the irresistible bookloving memoir by the late Hans van Straten, Een omgevallen boekenkast. The Dutch expression “A fallen bookshelf,” applied to a person, is a mixed compliment. In the swear word dictionary to which it had been admitted, it means a self-taught, overconfident semi-intellectual who uncritically spills out everything he reads. I am sure my benefactor means better.

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19 thoughts on “407 The Rembrandt virus, the Syndics variant”

  1. Dear Gary (if I may),
    Your books rank as my favourite readings among all of the books about Rembrandt I have read – the list is quite long now. I’m afraid I’ve been bitten – I read everything I can get my hands on. Thank you for this most recent article.

    I wondered whether you might tell me the year of the “Rembrandt t in a red beret” self-portrait?

    I look forward to reading “Rembrandt in a red beret: the vanishings and re-appearances of a Rembrandt.” when it comes out.

    1. How wonderful to hear, Wanda. Thank you so much. The manuscript of Rembrandt in a red beret is at the publisher’s, and is scheduled for publication in November. I will not let the opportunity pass to tell you all about it when the time comes.

  2. Hi can you tell me who will be publishing your book Rembrandt in a Red Beret and where it will be available for purchase.

    1. Michael, Rembrandt in a red beret will be published in English and Dutch by WBOOKS in Zwolle, The Netherlands. The English edition will have wide distribution and will be available in the usual places.

  3. Gary, that is terrible, I mean about the bookshelf! I can imagine your distress. I would not have known how to deal with such a mess.

    1. Thanks, Eva. I don’t want to upset people, not too much, so I waited until things were under control again. I’m actually enjoying the work now.

      1. Dear Gary, upon reflection I am so glad you did not get hurt! You and your family member could have been crushed to death under the weight of those books if in the room. Maybe the bookshelf was too old, dried out, and one shelf collapsed and took with it the whole! It is not enough to anchor the new one just to the wallboard. You need to find the 2x4s in the wall and anchor the whole thing to those! We have heavy bookshelves in the bedrooms where the grandchildren sleep, all around. This is what my husband did, anchor them to 2x4s!

        1. Eva, our son is a professional rebuilder, and he assures me that it’s now safe for me to sit in collapsing distance of the bookshelves again. I must say though that it would be a fitting end for a devourer of books like me to be buried under them.

          1. Dear Gary, it is great that you have a son who is a professional rebuilder and assures you! His words must be as good as gold. I would not have wanted you to be buried under your books though and thus lost for art history in such a dismal way. In all, all is good that’s ends well! I enjoyed the Syndics post, by the way. The Swiss one, even in your online image, appears to be quite fresh.

  4. Looks like the aftermath of an earthquake, poor you! You seem to have coped very well in recovery mode – with a filip in the memory test – bravo!

    The risk of something like this happening to me has subsided a bit: about 3 years ago I decided to dispose of any art book that was (a) a duplicate (not very many); (b) not on Dutch or Flemish art, and (c) I had not picked up for more than 25 years.

    I used to have 27 books on Raphael, an early passion, now I have four. It did seem to hurt at the time, but I haven’t really needed any of the ones I got rid of, or seriously missed having them around. The remaining shelves are built into the wall while almost all the books, which went to an art-book dealer for a small credit, seem to have found new homes where I expect they are being looked at. Now that I know I may have escaped a crash like yours, the whole exercise seems even more palatable, thank you. Maybe something to consider one day?

    Believe it or not, I was contacted about this supposed new version of The Syndics in 2016. Like you, and others before me, I was not impressed, but I think I’d have needed to see it before declaring it might have been made in the early 20th century…what a very useful label on the back!

    1. Dear Martin,

      What was on that wall were most of my monographs on Dutch and Flemish art, except Rembrandt, who is in another room. (Despite the street sign on the window.) Two years ago Loekie and I donated about four thousand books, including most of my non-Netherlandish art titles, to the Doornburgh Center for Art and Science that has gone up next door to us in what was a convent, and where we have visiting rights. Discarding books you haven’t opened in 25 years is probably a good idea, but I love them all even if I don’t read them.

  5. “The French composer Alkan died in Paris at the age of 74. For many years it was believed that his death was caused by a bookcase falling on him in his home, brought down as he reached for a volume of the Talmud which he had placed on the highest shelf (in the position closest to Heaven). This apocryphal tale, which appears to have been circulated by Delaborde, has been effectively disproved by Hugh MacDonald in an article in the Musical Times (vol. 129, 1978 – More on Alkan’s Death), in which he reports a contemporary letter from one of Alkan’s pupils explaining that Alkan had died following being trapped beneath a falling port-parapluie (a heavy coat/umbrella rack). The story of the bookcase may have its roots in a legend told by the Rabbi Aryeh Leib ben Asher Gunzberg, known as ‘Shaagat Aryeh’, rabbi of Metz, the town from which Alkan’s family originated. Alkan is buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris.”
    All’s well that ends well. I’m glad you and most titles remain in Fine condition.

    1. Thanks, Richard, I’m glad too. There’s a Dutch word used by journalists that applies here. Kapotchecken. Checking a story to death. If a story is that good, swallow your doubts, print it, and let the chips fall where they may.

  6. An advantage of presenting the work as an earlier version is that the presumable absence of cobalt and glass in the edge of the carpet (latterly discolored and invisible to a copyist, who might well not have had those materials to hand) can be argued to show an improvement by the painter of a later version, not a glaring flaw.

    1. Excuse me, Richard, for not studying the quite serious technological report by the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung (Berlin) included in the prospectus. I could not find a mention of cobalt. However, the report did contain this interesting conclusion: “In all the measurements, however, elements were also found that are considered indications of pigments that were first produced and used in painting in the 19th century. Among those elements are zinc, chromium, barium, and possibly cadmium. These elements were not primary components, but the findings are clear and require an explanation.” No explanation provided.

  7. The blacks in the copy of the Syndics look undersaturated and the flesh tones seem to be a bit off. Lighting for the photo of the copy could be an issue, as it is obvious there is glare near the top of the picture, but I don’t think that explains the differences.

    I am glad you seem to be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
    Congrats on your new book.

    1. Yes, Bill, there were apologies for the glare. It is a difficult painting to photograph. I refrain from detailed criticism.

  8. Dear Gary:

    I enjoy your columns, this one particularly. If something like that happened to my largest bookcase, I think I would krechtz (if that is the correct Yiddish verb).

    I have kept only my books on Northern European Art before 1600, as well as my books on Rembrandt and his “School.” All the rest of the books on Northern European Art are on consignment at a well known deale’rs. My wife and I live in a small apartment. There is still room for Vol. 5 of The Rembrandt Corpus, as soon as I save up enough money to obtain it.

    In any event, my question number one is, how may I obtain a copy of that Atlanta brochure?

    My second question is, have you thought about publishing, in one of your Lists, my “discovery” of Rembrandt’s dead monkey? I mentioned it in Facebook a while ago and except for Maaike, no one was interested in this discovery.

    Warm regards,

    Andrew Washton

    P.S. A friend of mine owns what I am 99% certain is a very very early tronie by Flinck. Unpublished so far as I know. How good is your Flinck expertise? He may be willing to send an image to you, if you are interested in seeing the painting.

    I have a new email address, please note.

    1. Thank you, Andrew, with apologies that I did not see your comment until now, weeks later. You too are a survivor, and no faling bookcase could get you down.

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