Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam

By John Michael Montias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
The Wealth of Buyers

A certain level of wealth was clearly a pre-condition for buying at auction, at least for individuals who did not make their living from buying and reselling works of art. But, of course, it was not a sufficient condition. Much more than an individual’s wealth must be known to predict whether he or she will be a buyer at auction. Still, individuals in high tax brackets and those scoring high on the level of their investments in the V.O.C. (United East Indies Company) and on the sums left after their death to their heirs were much more likely to have been buyers of works of art at Orphan Chamber auctions than other Amsterdam citizens.

My three indicators of wealth–buyers’ investments in the first and second subscriptions for V.O.C. shares in 1602 and 1612 respectively, the Orphan Chamber records of the assets that buyers or their wives left to their orphans, and the taxes buyers paid on their assessed wealth in 1631–all have their positive and negative aspects. The published list of investors in the 1612 subscription for V.O.C. shares is incomplete: it only includes those investors who bought more than 10,000 f worth of shares. Also, because the dates of the V.O.C. subscriptions fall early in the period covered by the auction notebooks, before many buyers began to frequent the Orphan Chamber sales, only a small percentage of the buyers are covered in these records (about 7 percent of the total number of buyers who were first active in the period 1597-1619). On the other hand, they do give us an idea as to who the buyers were among the richest merchants in Amsterdam in this early period. The Orphan Chamber registers are, of course, incomplete since, as we have seen, many citizens excluded the Chamber from handling their estate. Yet the information they provide about the occupation of the overwhelming majority of the fathers of orphans (never of the mother) is an invaluable source for matching occupation with wealth. The tax records for 1631 comprise a fairly large number of buyers, at least of those active relatively late in the period covered by the notebooks. Yet, because many names of the taxpayers were not carefully recorded and because their occupation is very seldom specified, problems frequently arise in pairing the names of buyers and taxpayers.

Seventy-six buyers at auction invested in the first subscription for V.O.C. shares. This number represented just under 7 percent of the total number of investors in this first subscription. In table 6.1 below, I have listed the names of all the buyers who were subscribers to either the 1602 or the 1612 offering (in excess of 10,000 f), together with the amount of their subscription, the number of lots of art objects they purchased at auction (in the Notebooks that have survived), and the total value of their purchases.

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