AFTER more than 10 years of research by a specially convened group of international scholars, Sotheby’s have revealed to the world’s press what they describe as a “newly-acknowledged” work by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75).
It will be offered in their Bond Street July 8 sale of Old Master paintings, estimated at “in excess of £3m”.
If it gains widespread acceptance – and there are still some ‘ifs’ hanging over this painting – this will bring the tally of fully authenticated Vermeers up to a heady 36.
Thought to date from c.1670, Young Woman Seated at the Virginals is a lined 10 by 8in (25 x 20cm) canvas that had been owned by the late Baron Frederic Rolin, a Belgian dealer in tribal art who was an occasional buyer of paintings he particularly liked.
He acquired this work from a London dealer in 1960. At the time this small painting, which in 1904 had been documented as a Vermeer in the holdings of the Irish collector Sir Alfred Beit, was one of a number of works that had been de-attributed by the leading Vermeer scholar A.B. de Vries following the wartime van Meegeren forgery debacle. However, despite being made fully aware of the problems surrounding the painting, Rolin was so convinced of its quality that he was prepared to buy it in exchange for some of his finest modern paintings by Klee, Signac, Bonnard and Riopelle.
In 1993 Rolin showed the painting to Sotheby’s Old Master specialist Gregory Rubinstein, who felt it was worthy of further research and technical analysis. Eleven years later this research would seem to suggest the painting is, in fact, an authentic Vermeer related to the superb c.1670 A Lady Standing at the Virginals and A Lady Seated at the Virginals in the National Gallery.
Technical analysis has revealed the pigments used in the Rolin painting, such as green earth and ultramarine, exactly correspond to the rare and expensive combinations employed by Vermeer. Moreover the physical structure of the canvas is exactly the same as that used in The Lacemaker in the Louvre, the only other extant Vermeer painting on this small scale.
As there is no record of Vermeer using assistants, the science would seem to point to this being an authentic Vermeer.
Recent restoration has also enhanced the reputation of the painting to the extent that it has now been accepted as an autograph work by major museum curators such as Frits Duparc, the director of the Mauritshuis, and Ernst van der Wetering, head of the Rembrandt Research Project.
The scientists say this is a Vermeer, at least two major Dutch museum curators say this is Vermeer, but others may yet need convincing that this is a work from the same transcendentally accomplished hand that painted A View of Delft and The Girl with the Pearl Earring. But, as Sotheby’s Gregory Rubinstein points out, even with such a tiny output, Vermeer can be a surprisingly uneven and varied artist. What some might regard as the uninspiring quality of this painting could be explained by its being a “first exploration” of the theme that came to fruition in the National Gallery’s sublime Lady Standing at the Virginals. Off-the-cuff valuations from Old Master dealers and auctioneers price that masterpiece at anything up to £50m.
Sotheby’s similarly dated Young Woman at the Virginals is valued at “just” £3m. This might seem a cautiously low estimate for a work by one of the world’s rarest and most admired artists, but it should be remembered that the last Vermeer to come up at auction failed to sell. Way back in 1921 The Little Street (now in the Rijksmuseum) was hopelessly overcooked by an Amsterdam saleroom at a massive one million guilders.
Vermeer, rather like Rubens, is a Netherlandish Old Master who has attracted his fair share of controversy. Back in July 2002 at Sotheby’s there were some in the academic community who doubted The Massacre of the Innocents was a lost masterpiece by Rubens. The £45m paid by Lord Thomson of Fleet suggested the market decided otherwise. Two years later the market will make a similar judgment as to whether this is a rediscovered Vermeer or ‘Vermeer’.