Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam

By John Michael Montias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Concluding Words on Auctions

While this study encompasses only about 15 percent of the auction sales of the Orphan Chamber whose records have been preserved, it covers over 95 percent of the value of the lots sold and, I believe, all the attributions cited in the 29 Notebooks. The vast majority of the lots omitted were cheap untitled little boards (bortgens) or little prints (printgens) that sold for cash. For the first time since these sales records have been studied, the emphasis has been laid on the buyers: their age, wealth, geographic origin, and connections with each other and with the owners, alive or deceased, of the goods sold. Of the 2000-odd buyers, some information has been uncovered about nearly two-thirds (detailed information on over half). Very few buyers whose family name was inscribed in the notebooks remain totally unknown.295 We found that many, if not most, of the buyers were linked by family, business, guild, neighborhood, or other ties with other buyers. One gets the impression that buying at auction was a highly social activity that helped to knit together the society or, perhaps one should say, the various societies in which the better-off burghers of Amsterdam–representing perhaps 15 percent of the population–intermingled. Such conviviality applied of course to attendance at the higher-class sales: the sales of the estates of poorer citizens, consisting more exclusively of inexpensive clothing and household goods, attracted chiefly the uitdraagsters, of whom there seem to have been at least one hundred active at one time or another in the entire period 1597-1638. These women, and a few men who also belonged to the trade, contributed to the circulation of works of art, mainly, we suppose, from the higher to the lower strata of the population.

We have seen that a certain amount of wealth was a necessary condition for buying at auction, except for uitdraagsters who turned over their small capital rapidly by reselling the goods they bought as soon as they could. But it was not a sufficient condition. Even among the highest purchasers of shares in the United East India Company (V.O.C.) and the taxpayers who paid the highest taxes on wealth, at least two-thirds are not known to have made purchases at Orphan Chamber auction. For those who did, other factors clearly played a role: a family relationship with the late owner of the goods sold; a common origin in Antwerp, Hamburg, or Cologne; membership in a guild, a chamber of rederijkers, a group of fellow practitioners of the art of fencing, a literary circle, or a militia company; living in a certain neighborhood; and belonging to a religious group politically connected with the Orphan Chamber were factors that apparently contributed to the probability that an individual with a certain amount of wealth would be a buyer at auction. A certain proclivity toward risk and the thrill of buying at auction–perhaps even of outbidding rivals–may also have played a role.

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