Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam

By John Michael Montias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
Echoes

What happened to all the works of art that private collectors bought at auction? Did they keep them until they died and pass them down to their heirs? Or did they resell them when they needed to raise money or when they were pursued by their creditors? In this chapter I draw on the inventories of buyers, sometimes drawn up years after their purchases at auction, to see whether they can throw light on these questions. Wherever I am able to identify a work of art in an inventory with an earlier purchase at auction, I refer to the later incidence as an “echo”. My results, based on small samples, show that only about a third of the works that can be so identified turned up in later inventories. In the latter part of the chapter I discuss some of the reasons for the apparent instability of Amsterdam collections.

To construct my sample, I proceeded as follows. I first collected a sample of inventories or auction sales of individuals who are known to have made purchases at auction at some earlier time. Most of these were drawn up after the buyer had become insolvent (inventories of the Desolate Boedelskamer) or after his or his wife’s death (notarial probate inventories). I was able to find 34 such cases in these inventories. I then selected among the purchases that these individuals (or their husbands) had made at auction, all the works of art that were described with enough precision to be matched with some corresponding work of art in the inventory. I reasoned that matching would be possible (but might or might not occur) in case one or more of the characteristics of the works of art purchased was present: the work of art was attributed; its subject was fairly well defined; its format was recorded (oblong, square, round, oval). In certain cases, I used as corroborative evidence, the (high or low) price at which the object was sold. In the case of the subject, I considered a “history” (“Susanna”, “Lazarus”, “Woman at the Well”, “Venus”) in the work purchased at auction a sufficient criterion for a potential identification with a work in the subsequent inventory.

My sample of more or less precisely described works of art purchased at auction that I tried to match with items in the buyers’ subsequent inventories consisted of 92 items. The next step was to find works of art matching any of the items in the “welldescribed sample” of works purchased by an individual in his or her subsequent inventory. Clearly, reasonable judgement had to be exercised, and the matching of works purchased and recorded in inventories was subject to a certain margin of error. There were, in fact, two mutually offsetting sources of error. A painting of a certain subject (say, a “Susanna”) could be bought at auction in 1612, sold or otherwise discarded in 1622, and another one bought of the same subject in 1627, which would fi

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