A long-lost piece of Dutch art history returns to the Netherlands. Next week, New York-based Christopher Bishop Fine Art is offering a €1.35 million ($1.4 million) rediscovered drawing by Jan Lievens at TEFAF Maastricht.
The artwork surfaced in October 2020 at Marion Antique Auctions, a small Massachusetts auction house, where it was billed as a drawing of “an unidentified gentleman, initialed IL and dated 1652.” The estimate was only $200 to $300, but it immediately caught Christopher Bishop’s attention.
The drawing came to Marion via a Massachusetts family who consigned a collection of hand-painted china. When the auction house’s co-owner, Frank McNamee, visited their home, he was also shown a selection of framed artworks and became attracted to the Lievens.
“I didn’t have enough time to really research it, but I made sure it was featured in all the auction ads,” he said New York Times.
What the auction house had failed to spot was the portrait’s resemblance to a well-known Lievens print of Maerten Tromp, a Dutch naval commander who became a national hero for his role in the First Anglo-Dutch War and his death at the hands of Maerten Tromp, an Englishman Sharpshooter in 1653.
The year before Tromp’s death he sat for Lievens in Amsterdam. The Dutch doyen used his Tromp drawing as the basis for a widely reproduced engraving and later for two oil paintings, one of which belongs to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Lievens also made a second drawing based on the print, which is in the collection of the British Museum in London.
In 1943 there was even a series of widely circulated postage stamps issued as a bit of nationalist propaganda at the height of World War II.
But the original drawing had disappeared, last seen at an auction in Frankfurt in 1888.
“This was a missing drawing, a drawing that we knew was out there. We just didn’t know where,” Bishop told Artnet News in an email.
The initials on the Marion Antiques drawing were the first hint that the auction house might have something special. In the 17th century, the letter J was often indistinguishable from an I, which could mean the monogram was actually “JL”.
Bishop wasn’t the only one who suspected he’d found a sleeper: More than 15 people called Marion to inquire before the auction, and five people bid over the phone during the auction, which quickly drove the price to a staggering $514,800 .
In the midst of the bidding war, the auctioneer paused to acknowledge that “it seems we underestimated this one”.
As the price skyrocketed, Bishop knew he was taking a huge financial risk. “At that price you have to be 100 percent right,” he admitted. “However, the logic of this drawing was inescapable… All the pieces fit.”
After purchasing the artwork, Bishop was able to take it out of the frame for closer examination. When the drawing was superimposed over the print, it matched exactly – and there were even pinholes in the paper used by the printmaker to line it up on the engraving plate.
“The drawing fits the print like a glove,” Bishop said.
Holding the paper up to the light provided further evidence, revealing an intricate watermark with a seven-pointed collar.
This showed that the paper was made by a company known to have been used by Lievens’ contemporary and former studio colleague Rembrandt van Rijn. The paper is known to have only been in production for 15 years and it would make sense if the two great artists used the same supplier.
“Watermarks don’t lie. They are unique to a time and place, like fingerprints,” Bishop said.
The last evidence was the mark of William Mayor, one of the known owners of the drawings, when he had his collection cataloged in London in 1875.
The drawing has since been examined by Gregory Rubinstein, Head of Old Master Drawings at Sotheby’s London, who has confirmed its authenticity as a work by Lievens.
“The rediscovery of the original drawing by Jan Lievens is an event of the utmost importance,” he said in a statement. “It’s exciting to finally know what Lievens’ grandiose, large-scale depiction of this national hero actually looked like.”
The Massachusetts family had owned the drawing for generations, probably having bought it on business trips to Europe in the early 1900s. Now, over 100 years later, the original version of Tromp’s famous portrait is finally on its way home.
“In many ways it belongs to the Dutch nation,” Bishop said. “The tenacity, determination and resilience shown by Tromp and conquering Lievens makes Holland a great nation. I would love it if a Dutch institution acquired it.”
TEFAF will be on view from 24th to 30th June 2022 at MECC Maastricht, Forum 100, 6229 GV Maastricht, The Netherlands.
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