The MET shows a 6th Vermeer

January 9th, 2009

After its zigzag performance, the Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, reattributed in recent times to Vermeer, has bobbed up again in an unexpected place, next to the Woman with a Water Pitcher at the MET.

With the help of Lee Rosenbaum’s timely reporting on CultureGRll (artsJournal) and some detective work of my own, let’s take a  look at the painting’s history.

  • The Young Woman Seated at a Virginal is presumabley painted by Vermeer c. 1670.
  • The picture is documented for the first time in 1904, when it was published in the preliminary catalogue by Dr. Wilhelm Bode of the collection of Alfred Beit, a South African-born diamond magnate who rivaled the great early 20th-century art acquisitions of Americans such as Frick and Mellon.
  • Before and during the World War II, it was unanimously recognized by scholars, including Wilhelm Bode, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, A.B. de Vries, Eduard Plietzsch and Ludwig Goldscheider.
  • Following the dramatic Van Meegeren affair of Vermeer forgeries, De Vries, the Director of the Rijksmuseum, the leadingVermeer scholar, expressed doubts about the authenticity of the picture published in 1948. De Vries changed his mind, in favor of the painting, and wrote several letters saying that if his book were to go into a third edition he would rehabilitate the picture.
  • When Beit died, the picture passed to his brother, Otto Beit, and then the latter’s son, Sir Alfred Beit, who eventually, in 1960, placed the picture on consignment with a London dealer.
  • Baron Frédéric Rolin of Brussels, an occasional collector of Old Masters and dealer in tribal art, sees and falls in love with it. Aware of the doubtful attribution to Vermeer, he acquired it in exchange four works from his collection, paintings by Klee, Signac, Bonnard and Riopelle.
  • Lawrence Gowing (1970) and Christopher Wright (1976) continued to accept it, but others dismissed it.
  • In 1993, Sotheby’s was approached by Baron Rolin, with a request to undertake new research on the painting.
  • A complete scientific study was begun in 1995 by Libby Sheldon of University College London, in collaboration with her colleague Catherine Hassall, and in 1997 Nicola Costaras of the Victoria and Albert Museum joined this team.. The investigation demonstrated that the picture was unquestionably 17th-century and that also that its technical composition was entirely consistent with Vermeer’s known working methods. In particular, the composition of the ground layers was found to be entirely comparable with other works by the artist, and the pigments used were also appropriate.
  • Rolin dies in 2002, and the painting is offered for sale by his heirs.
  • Sotheby’s auctions the painting to an unknown bidder for $30 million.
  • The painting is shown briefly at the Philadelphia Museum. The buyer finally turns out to be the number one suspect, Steve Wynn the Las Vegas casino mogul and art collector.
  • The painting disappears in Wynn’s main office.
  • It is exhibited in Tokyo along with other 6 other Vermeer’s from August 2 – December 14, 2008.
  • Norm Clarke of the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the painting was sold by Wynn to an unknown buyer for $30 million.
  • The painting raises its head for the last time on Dec. 29 in Gallery 14A of the European paintings galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, It is labeled as from a “Private Collection.” It will be on view until June 1.

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