Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam

By John Michael Montias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Orphan Chamber Auctions in Amsterdam

Auctions were held by the Orphan Chamber (Weeskamer) of Amsterdam at least as early as 1507. Auction sales of bankrupt estates, conducted by the “concierge” of the Town Hall, are first mentioned in 1544. These “executive sales” were taken over by the Bankruptcy Chamber (Desolate Boedelskamer) after about 1622. Ships and other merchandise were sold separately by the Chamber after 1637. In the 17th century, auction sales of goods brought from overseas territories were held under the auspices of the Orphan Chamber, by the United East Indies Company (V.O.C.), and by the West Indies Company (W.I.C.). All these, of course, were officially approved sales.11 There were also unauthorized (“wild”) sales that the artists’ Guild of St. Luke, in particular, tried hard to interdict, but with only limited success. For merchandise that was not subject to guild control, such as flower bulbs, auction sales took place in inns without municipal or other supervision.

The records of executive sales and of all other sales held outside the jurisdiction of the Orphan Chamber are irremediably lost. We are exceptionally fortunate that the detailed records of auctions held by the Orphan Chamber have been preserved for a number of years between 1597 and 1638 in the 29 Notebooks already cited.12 How precious and rare these records are may be judged from the following considerations. We have no actual records of other auction sales held in Amsterdam until the 18th century, and certainly no records containing the names of buyers.13 Only very few records of auction sales held in other cities of the United Provinces have survived for which buyers’ names are available.14

This book systematically exploits the information about the nature of the art objects sold in these auctions–paintings, drawings, prints, textiles with designated subjects, and so forth–the subjects they represented, their prices, and the attributions set down by the clerks in the Orphan Chamber notebooks. But it concentrates especially on the buyers whose names were recorded. As it turns out, four out of five buyers did not pay for their purchases in cash, and their names (as well, often, as their addresses) had to be set down by the clerk recording the sale in case they had to be traced if they failed to pay up. Many of these were professionals: art and print dealers, painters and sculptors utilizing the paintings and prints they bought in their ateliers or in their stock in trade. A majority were ordinary collectors, of whom most, we may suppose, were just intent on furnishing their homes. A significant minority, however, were art lovers (called liefhebbers in Dutch). These had a real interest in the quality of the works of art they bid on, as we may judge from the high prices they sometimes paid and from occasional notarial documents in which their collecting ac-

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