At least 19,000 Britons have booked to go to The Hague to see the exhibition of just 23 paintings, most of them small, intimate canvasses depicting ordinary figures in a quiet moment of reflection.
Vermeer fever has spread far and wide, and by the time the show ends in June, three-quarters of a million people are expected to have seen the paintings, either in the small Mauritshuis in The Hague or in Washington where it was previously on view.
So far 10,000 individual bookings and group bookings for 9,000 have been received from Britons. The figure already far surpasses the few thousands who visited the recent Paris exhibitions of Gauguin and Picasso, and the Netherlands Reser- vation Centre expects more to turn up, as a handful of tickets are sold each day at the door.
Karl Hoogendorn, the Dutch embassy's counsellor for press and culture, said: "I don't think there have been as many British people here at one moment since Arnhem. We've had a large number of British visitors to the Tulip Gardens, or football matches, or the annual international jazz festival at The Hague, but nothing like on this level."
The show is rivalling the hugely successful Cezanne exhibition, which is expected to bring 400,000 visitors to the Tate Gallery in London before it closes on 28 April. The same number of tickets has already been sold worldwide for Vermeer, and the Mauritshuis is staying open on Sundays and until midnight on certain evenings to meet the demand.
Sylvan Chambard, the NRC's project manager, said yesterday: "The exhibition opened last Friday and we have already had 26,600 visitors. We are only a small museum and if everybody who wanted to go could, we would have to stay open until Christmas. We could easily sell a million tickets."
The exhibition includes 22 of the Dutch master's remaining 35 pictures, and one by his circle. Johannes Vermeer, the son of a silk master, died aged 43 in 1675 leaving 11 children and a widow so indebted she had to pay a baker's bill with two paintings. As recently as 1882 a painting changed hands for a couple of coins, but today the worth of the paintings on show in The Hague is beyond calculation.
The Mauritshuis exhibition includes works gathered from national collections around the world, including those in Edinburgh, New York, Amsterdam, Paris and London. The Queen has lent one painting, A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (the Music Lesson).
The Dutch show includes two more paintings than the Washington exhibition, for which 350,000 visitors queued in heavy snow to view 20 pictures. President Clinton and Salman Rushdie were among those who enjoyed a VIP private view.
Robin Simon, editor of the international art magazine, Apollo, - who saw the show in its first few days - is somewhat surprised by the British interest. "Unlike the 100-odd Cezanne pictures, people are travelling to see only 22 pictures. "But it's a once in a lifetime opportunity. The works will never be seen together again. He was a prodigy and painted like an angel from the age of 17 - but a great eccentric."
If Vermeer has prompted Britons to travel to an exhibition in unprecedented numbers, they are not alone. There will be 102,000 people from France, and 35,000 Belgians have booked tickets. Germans have shown less enthusiasm; only 12,000 have so far made reservations.