Provenance of Rembrandt's Copper Etching Plates
The vast majority of Rembrandt etchings sold worldwide today are posthumous impressions (printed by someone else after the death of the artist). Knowing the lineage of Rembrandt’s copper plates, when the impressions were printed and by whom, allows collectors to increase their knowledge of these works and their background. Park West includes all available information in the descriptions provided for the Rembrandt etchings we sell. When considering a purchase of a Rembrandt etching at a Park West auction or by telephone from our gallery, please request a copy of the complete description from the auctioneer or associate to determine the vintage of the work so you may make the correct decision for your collection.
When Rembrandt’s house and possessions were auctioned to pay creditors in the late 1650s, his copper plates and etching tools were not among the items sold. Their absence has spurred a number of theories. While it’s possible Rembrandt sold the plates prior to the auction to recover some funds, it is equally plausible that he passed his beloved creations to friends to protect them. Quite possibly, Rembrandt had nothing to do with the decision to spare them: The bankruptcy court might have excluded them from the sale because they were tools of the artist’s trade. Although the world may never know the whereabouts of the plates during that period, records exist that have given clues to experts allowing them to trace the ownership of the plates believed to have survived after the artist’s death in 1669.
Based on available research the succession of owners is as follows:
Clement de Jonghe - c. 1677
Rembrandt’s friend—print dealer Clement de Jonghe—created the first record of the artist’s copper plates in an inventory of his estate. Although it’s unclear how de Jonghe came by the 74 plates he inventoried, it’s possible he acquired them while his friend was still living.
Pieter de Haan - 1767
The Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam holds the next clue of ownership: A catalog from the 1767 auction of the estate of Pieter de Haan—in which 76 of Rembrandt’s copper etching plates are listed. To date, there is no record of when or how de Haan obtained the plates.
Pierre Fouquet - 1767-1768
Pierre Fouquet purchased approximately 53 of the copper plates at the de Haan sale in 1767. He sold the plates to Claude Henri Watelet later that same year, leading historians to believe that he might have purchased them on commission.
Posthumous Printings of Rembrandt Etchings of Unknown Edition Size
Claude Henri Watelet Impressions - 1768-1786
The copper plates remained in Watelet’s collection until sometime around 1786, when the Frenchman’s estate was sold. A catalog for the sale listed more than 78 of Rembrandt’s etching plates—and subsequent records indicate that Watelet might have owned as many as 83 plates. Watelet, a very skilled etcher himself was apparently the first to rework some of the plates. Today, the impressions he printed are well sought after, as Watelet’s intention was to restore the plates to present a very fine appearance when printed.
Pierre Francois Basan Impressions - 1789-1797
Having purchased Watelet’s entire collection in 1786, Pierre Francois Basan published a series of Rembrandt etchings—from 83 Rembrandt copper plates—between 1789 and 1797.
H.L. Basan Impressions - 1807-1808
After Basan died in 1797, his son, Henri Louis Basan, inherited the plates and published further collections of Rembrandt etchings.
The Basan collections of prints were issued in a large “book (12 ¼” x 18 ¼”)” with blue or green mottling on the outside. They are known as “recueils.” There was no set “edition” size for these printings and evidence suggests they were printed on demand over a period of years by the Basans and the subsequent owners of the plates until the early 20th Century.
In the recueils, the Rembrandt etchings and approximately 70 other prints by various artists were pasted by the four corners onto heavy paper, typically three or four to a page. The first Basan recueil sold for 96 French Livres (about 4 British Pounds, in 1967 according to Rembrandt cataloger, Nowell Eusticke). Park West has acquired several examples of these “recueils” over the last 25 years from major auction houses internationally. Today as imagined, they are very costly and appear rarely for sale worldwide (only eleven recueils with varying quantities of prints have appeared for sale at international auctions in the last 18 years (source: Gordon’s).
August Jean Impressions - 1805-1810
At some point between 1805 and 1810, August Jean purchased the entire collection of copper plates from Basan, and later released further examples of Rembrandt etchings in his own recueils. According to Nowell Eusticke, Jean’s widow reissued the recueil around 1826 in conjunction with printer C. Naudet who did some retouching of the plates.
J. M. Creery Impressions - 1816-1826
In 1816, J.M. Creery in London published a “Collection of 200 Original Etchings,” that included six Rembrandts not among the collection owned by August Jean. These were published again in 1826 by J. Kay.
19th and 20th Century
August and Michael Bernard Impressions - 1846-1906
Sometime around 1846, Jean’s widow sold the collection to August Bernard in Paris before her death that same year. The plates remained with Bernard and his son, Michel, until 1906, when Alvin Beaumont purchased them from Bernard fils. Some time during the printing of the Bernard recueil, the plate for “Death of the Virgin (B.99)” was damaged or lost, as in the late Bernard recueils it is replaced by a copy.
Alvin Beaumont Impressions - 1906
After Beaumont published a series of Rembrandt etchings—commonly known as the Beaumont impressions—it is documented that 78 of the remaining copper plates were varnished, placed in green leather mounts with their French titles emblazoned in gold, then framed in black. Beaumont lent the collection to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where it remained for seven years, during which time he attempted to negotiate their sale to the museum.
Robert Lee Humber - 1938
Failing to negotiate an agreement with either the Rijksmuseum or the British Museum of Art, Beaumont sold the copper plates to an American friend, Robert Lee Humber in 1938, who was living in Paris at the time. Humber later returned with the collection to his home state of North Carolina.
Humber lent the plates to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh where they remained in storage for more than 30 years—even after Humber’s heirs inherited the collection following his death in 1970. Rembrandt’s copper etching plates remained in the North Carolina Museum of Art until 1993, at which time the Humber collection was sold at auction by his heirs. The auction was arranged by Artemis International in London. The Humber collection was then sold to a group of private collectors, dealers and museums from around the world including six Dutch museums and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
20th - 21st Century
The Millennium Impressions - 1997-2008
Eight of Rembrandt’s copper plates from the Humber collection were sold in 1993 by Artemis International of London to Robert Light a noted Rembrandt expert and art dealer in New York. In 1994 Robert Light sold the plates to Howard Berger, who was to form Millennium Impressions. In 2003 Park West Gallery purchased Millennium Impressions and the plates.
In 1994, Emiliano Sorini of the Sorini Studio in New York, one of America’s finest printers (and who had previously printing a five image set of Goya’s "Los Caprichos") was engaged to study the condition of Rembrandt’s plates and determine whether impressions could be printed once again in history. When Emiliano Sorini received Rembrandt’s copper etching plates in New York, they were still protected with a layer of ink and varnish after Beaumont issued his second posthumous receuil in 1906. Emiliano embarked on the year long effort to carefully remove the centuries of old crystallized and congealed ink from Rembrandt’s plates, and a lengthy search was conducted to find the finest European paper and ink. After Sorini’s painstaking and delicate effort and careful studies of Rembrandt’s Lifetime Impressions, Sorini printed the first proofs of the Millennium Impressions from Rembrandt’s copper plates.
In 1998, Sorini was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and he could not continue to print the Millennium Impressions. Before his illness crippled him, he taught Marjorie Van Dyke, his student and protégé, to thoroughly understand what it took to faithfully and properly print Rembrandt’s plates. She eventually finished Sorini’s work as a tribute to his life.
At the inception of the work by Emiliano Sorini and Marjorie Van Dyke, the plates were placed in a bank vault in New York under the supervision and control of Sorini and Van Dyke. The plates were only removed from the vault during the time periods of printing, and were immediately returned after each printing session. The printing process took 10 years and Marjorie Van Dyke has certified that only 2500 impressions were printed from each plate.
Park West Gallery certifies that upon taking possession of the plates they were inspected by Erik Hinterding, expert and author of The History of Rembrandt's Copperplates, who certified that they were in the same condition as when sold to Dr. Berger. Park West further certifies that since the time it has owned the plates, only Marjorie Van Dyke has printed them.
The eight etchings printed between 1998 and 2008 referred to as the Millennium Impressions will become known as the last editions whose publication began during the millennium in which Rembrandt lived.