In a dreadfully long article in the New York Times, Russell Shorto described how ‘an obsessive Dutch aristocrat’ proved the fallibility of auction houses and their ‘experts’ after they failed to spot an original by Rembrandt. The article’s appeal lies on the popular fantasy of an average Joe running into a work in a garage sale which happens to be a multimillion dollar master piece and bingo! The ‘obsessive Dutch aristocrat’ who found the Rembrandt is, of course, far from this for many reasons but one of them has to do with the fact that he is the direct the homonymous direct descendant of Jan Six, the sitter of one of Rembrandt’s most extraordinary late portraits. The protagonist of Shorto’s article is then Jan Six VII, 40 year-old and a professional art dealer specialised in Dutch Golden Age portraiture.
To tell a long story short, one cold Amsterdam morning after dropping his kids at school, Jan Six VII got ready to relax, opened the catalogue of the Christie’s Old Masters Day Sale (a lesser one than the all important Evening Sale) that was going to take place November, 2016 in London. A piece caught immediately his attention. Its estimate was 19,000 to 25,000 dollars, described as ‘Circle of Rembrandt’. This seemed odd to an expert like Six because if it was dated around 1630 or 1635, Rembrandt was too young to have a ‘circle’. Thinking that this mistake might have been spotted by someone else, he got an investor on board who would allow him to offer at auction up to 4 million pounds for the piece (4 million pounds from an estimated of 19,000 dollars!). It was at this point that this story caught my attention. Eventually, the painting was sold to him for 137,000 pounds.
As aforementioned, The New York Times’ piece is far too long and romantic describing him as young and dynamic (he rides bycicles by the canals in Amsterdam, for example) and his father as dignified and senatorial. Overall, Russell Shorto’s is a tale of a curious and savvy aristocrat who found a work of art about which he felt so certain that he was ready to go from 20,000 to 4 million. Those who know the Early Modern market are very much aware that the circuit of dealers and museums can function as a gang where the elite has always the upper hand mostly when the works to be certified have no documental provenance. As a matter of fact, Shorto was commissioned the article by The New York Times because he knew the Six family. In fact, he dedicates a few unnecessary paragraphs to when he had lunch with Jan Six VII’s father when writing a book on the Amsterdam Golden Age. In other words, a family name like that can open many doors in the elitist world of the Dutch Golden Age scholarship to the point that experts might be pushed around to get to conclusions that, in normal circumstances, they would never get without the necessary documentary evidence. This brings us to the issue of the ‘experts’. Let me be more clear.
After spotting the painting in the Christie’s catalogue, Jan Six VII went to one of Rembrandt’s Catalogue Raisonnées only to see that that painting’s ‘original’ is at the Rijksmuseum as ‘Portrait of a Man’. The fact that there might be a copy of that original by the artist’s hand is not unusual because in the XVII century portraits were sent to family members all over so copies were expected. There is no proof, however,that the artist himself and not an assistant painted it and X rays cannot prove that he did. This means that Christie’s weren’t that mistaken at believing that if the original was at the National Museum, the one on sale might be by an assistant or a follower. To prove his point, however, Six went to Petria Noble, the chief conservator at the Rijksmuseum who made the chemical and X ray tests to conclude that the painting had been made with the same materials used by Rembrandt. This does not discard the possibility that it was made by an assistant. There is also the issue of the technique because Rembrandt used to paint firstly, the background, then the figures and finally the details such as lace, jewellery, etc. But this same technique could be logically passed to any of his pupils. Although it is hard to affirm that Rembrandt had a ‘circle’ in 1635, he certainly had pupils and assistants. Furthermore, there is no documentary proof that says that there was a copy to that original that is at the Rijksmuseum so to conclude that that is an original with a market price of the astonishing price of 400 million euros (for it is insured at that price) shows two potentially contradictory things. Firstly, Christie’s flawed expertise at not going further with their research and secondly, the way the impoverished aristocratic elite has found in art dealing an easy way to manipulate the ‘experts’ (many of them family friends) to get to conclusions that in normal circumstance might have required much more documentary proof than just trusting a couple of ‘friends’. The outrageous reselling price of 400 million made me rise an eyebrow for all this might very easily be a publicity stunt to boost prices in that particular niche of the art market which as the article states is moribund and which, of course, might potentially be an amazing deal for Six and company. There is a paragraph in that article that make my hypothesis even more credible when states that due to tax problems, the Sixes were forced to put their properties and collection under the aegis of a foundation that until a left wing government decides otherwise, was publicly funded. If it is born in mind that a first rate Titian was sold to the National Gallery for much less than that figure, the 400 million euros might become a way of paying less taxes and going around left wing politics ‘in style’. What is The New York Times place in this half-Rembrandt, half-rich, half-publicly funded affair is, in any way, clear. J A T