Rembrandt is looked on as the greatest printmaker of all time. He made some 300 etchings, including portraits, biblical subjects, scenes from everyday life and landscapes, etching on copper plates with dazzling virtuosity. Sometimes the etchings have the spontaneity and speed of a pencil sketch, sometimes the care and finish required of a saleable illustration. They always have a realism so vivid that the viewer is carried directly into the scene. His original plates are like chips off the True Cross.
Artemis had for sale virtually all the plates that are known to survive. Its print specialist, Adrian Eeles, who masterminded the deal, tells me that he knows of one other plate for certain, and a second which may be authentic.
Selling the copper plates required no catalogue, no press announcement and no advertising. Eeles bought them in January in partnership with an American dealer, Robert Light; they offered them for sale in February at the time of the Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy - the plates were not exhibited, but Eeles let it be known they were for sale. By the end of March only eight out of 78 were unsold.
'We just did it by word of mouth,' Eeles explained to me. First he invited representatives of the main Dutch museums to London and offered them first pick. Then, he threw the sale open to all comers. Robert Light, who works from Santa Barbara in California, took photographs and a sample of plates around American museums whose curators could not manage to come to London.
The purchasers read like a roll-call of the world's great museums: the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandt House (Amsterdam), the Bibliotheque Nationale and the Institut Neerlandais (Paris), the Albertina (Vienna), the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Fogg (Cambridge, Massachusetts), the National Gallery of Scotland, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ashmolean (Oxford) and the Fitzwilliam (Cambridge). The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Institute of Fine Arts in Chicago have both reserved plates; only two museums with great print collections have so far declined the opportunity to add a Rembrandt plate to their collections - the British Museum and the National Gallery, Washington. In addition, Dutch, American and English private collectors have acquired examples.
So how did this extraordinary opportunity come about? The 78 plates last changed hands in 1938, when they were bought by an American, Robert Lee Humber. In fact, he bought 80 plates, but two have been dismissed by Eeles.
Humber was an international lawyer who had spent a lot of time in Paris, where he struck up a friendship with the plates' former owners, the Alvin-Beaumont family. He bought them and took them back to North Carolina. In 1956 Humber lent the Rembrandt plates to an exhibition called 'Rembrandt and his Pupils' at the North Carolina Museum of Arts in Raleigh. They remained on deposit at the museum up to his death in 1970.
Humber's two sons were in no hurry to do anything about them. They were left at the museum - only one or two were occasionally on show - until it moved to new, larger premises in 1980. Then the family took them back and put them in a bank vault. According to Eeles, he had known for a couple of years that the plates were potentially for sale; they had been offered to Sotheby's and Christie's. But, mysteriously, no one had gone to look at them. 'They took them out of the bank for me last summer,' Eeles told me. 'The moment I saw them I knew that I wanted to handle them. The visual appeal was so strong.'
What he actually saw was the 80 plates as they had been mounted and framed by Mr Alvin-Beaumont in around 1906. Having made a highly controversial attempt to print from the plates, he magnanimously decided that the plates were now 'relics'. They were inked up so that the image could be read in black against the polished copper surface, and varnished. The 'relics' were then mounted in yellowish-green leather inside massive black frames - several plates to each frame. When Eeles saw them, there were 11 of these frames, nine multiples and two etchings framed individually.
The origin of the plates can be traced almost back to Rembrandt. His friend the print publisher Clement de Jonghe (whose portrait features in this group of plates) died in 1677, and the inventory of his possessions taken in 1679 includes 75 plates. They turn up next in the hands of another Dutch printmaker, Pieter de Haan, whose family sold them after his death in 1767. From there they moved to France, first to Claude Henri Watelet, an amateur artist and printmaker - he was in charge of collecting taxes for the Orleans family.
Rembrandt himself had altered his plates frequently during his lifetime. He printed some of the plates in 10 or more different states. But the first outside interference is deemed to have come from Watelet. By the time he acquired the plates, they had been continuously printed for over 100 years and many were worn; Watelet appears to have worked on them with the aim of getting back to Rembrandt's original intentions.
From Watelet they passed to Pierre Francois Basan, a print entrepreneur of the first water according to Humber's researches. 'Through his efforts, several thousand paintings of the most important artists of all times were engraved,' Humber wrote in the 1956 North Carolina Museum catalogue. 'At the time of the Napoleonic wars, when copper was scarce, it is thought that about two-thirds of the Basan plates were melted into cannon; the residue escaped destruction but were lost.' Humber explains that his friend Mr Alvin- Beaumont thought, in 1906, that he was buying the residue of the Basan plates from a minor French printer into whose hands they had passed by inheritance. But among the plates reproducing Old Masters, he found the group of 80 Rembrandts.
Alvin-Beaumont told his story to a magazine called L'Artiste which trumpeted the discovery. At this, several establishment figures claimed the plates were fakes, first a noted Rembrandt scholar, Andre-Charles Coppier, then the collector Edmond de Rothschild. Both were allowed to make microscopic comparisons with known prints and ended up accepting the authenticity of the plates.
After remaining together for more than 300 years, the plates are now dispersed. They have never been cancelled or disfigured. It is perfectly possible for anyone who has bought a plate to clean off the varnish and try their hand at printing. After a lull since the last prints were made in around 1906, it seems likely that some of the plates will now be used again. But with worn plates, no one can expect to make a mint of money. Large quantities of 18th- and 19th-century impressions are still around and can be had for a few hundred pounds. -
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