Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam

By John Michael Montias | Go to book overview

Introduction

In the economic development of Western Europe, urbanization, markets, and the commercialization of art followed parallel trends. In the course of time, when markets became fairly developed, auctions of general merchandise and of art works emerged–in ancient Rome, in early 15th century Venice,2 in 16th century Antwerp and Amsterdam3–as a quick and efficient way to dispose of goods.

Amsterdam in the late 16th and 17th centuries was primarily a trading city. Almost everyone had things to sell, from the master craftsman to the merchant engaged in international trade. Already from the mid-1580s, after Antwerp had fallen to Spanish troops and its port on the Scheldt had been blocked by the Dutch insurgents in their war of liberation against Spain, Amsterdam had become the premier emporium and entrepôt of Europe, the place where merchants in the rest of Europe could most conveniently and economically purchase all manner of staples, from cannon shot to mercury. Many of these staples reached the market via agreements freely negotiated among competitive buyers and sellers on Amsterdam’s stock market–its beurs–and in other places where traders met and dealt. But, as we shall see presently, auctions also played a significant role in making a market for a number of commodities, including lumber, leather, peat, spices, tulip bulbs, imported porcelain wares and ship’s equipment. The “law of one price, one market” was already so well established by 1585 that weekly price lists were printed for most staples traded on the beurs which served as reference points for the rest of Europe.4 This commercial culture extended to trading in works of art. For a merchant or a successful craftsman who had attended auctions of spices or ship’s equipment or who had traded on the beurs, buying works of art at an auction held by the Orphan Chamber or by the Bankruptcy Chamber (Desolate Boedelskamer) must have seemed like a natural extension of his business activity. Ever since the beginning of the 16th century paintings had been sold at auction as part of the estates of deceased citizens, along with their clothes, their furniture and their pots and pans. But for those who were too busy to attend these mixed sales, specialized auctions of works of art had been held in Amsterdam at least as early as 1608.5

The efficiency of Amsterdam’s markets was enhanced by their volume and depth, which in turn depended to a major extent on the population of the city. This was of course a self-reinforcing mechanism: the larger and more capacious Amsterdam’s markets became, the more they attracted traders and craftsmen from other parts of Europe, who settled in the Netherlands and contributed to the capacity of these markets. When Amsterdam’s population numbered only 30,000 inhabitants in 1567, the

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