Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam

By John Michael Montias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
How Auction Sales of the
Orphan Chamber Were Conducted

Normally, estates were divided among the heirs either in accord with the provisions of the testament of the deceased or, in the absence of a testament, according to the laws and regulations of the States of Holland and West Friesland.28 However, the rules of the Orphan Chamber allowed an exception to the division rule at the request of the surviving parent. He or she could request that “an act of sale (uytkoop)” be passed by the Chamber. By holding a sale, the surviving parent could make sure that the children would have enough money to pay for their wedding or for their coming of age.29

Even if we include all the voluntary sales, only some of which were made at the request of guardians, there is only a record, in the Notebooks that have been preserved, of some 80-90 sales per year or about a third of the appearances before the Chamber (in the 1620s). This implies in turn that only 3 to 5 percent of the estates of inhabitants leaving minor heirs were put up at auction. We do not know whether this low proportion was due mainly to the will of testators to exclude the Orphan Chamber from handling their estate, to the poverty of most deceased persons who simply did not have enough assets to warrant a sale, to the decision of surviving parents to divide the estate among the heirs without resorting to a sale, or, in certain years, to the loss of records. There is some evidence that estates with numerous heirs, especially of different ages and marital status, were more likely to be sold at auction than those with one or two direct heirs (like a son and a daughter). Clearly, apportioning a sum of money among several heirs was easier than dividing up a large number of objects left in the estate among them.

Guardians, as we have seen, could request that the goods of their wards be sold at auction. In such cases, they could also bid at the sale, and they often did so. The value of their purchases was then generally subtracted from the net proceeds of the sale. This is the meaning of the clerk’s notation, in lieu of the buyer’s name, of the expression “at whose request” (tot wiens versoeck), which was sometimes accompanied by the name of a relative of the deceased owner.30

Whether or not the estates to be sold were appraised by sworn appraisers prior to a sale and the estimates used as points of departure for setting the prices at the sale, as has been argued by the respected archivist Isabella van Eeghen, is not altogether clear.31 In her account, which is not supported by any examples from archival records,32 appraisers first set firm prices based on their appraisals for all the items

-20-

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