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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