The scene depicted is the interior of a tax office. Two richly-dressed, wizened and grotesque tax collectors sit at a table covered with green cloth, poring over a great variety of gold and silver coins. To their right, a modestly attired farmer or burgher has emptied his purse onto the table, and seems to protest that he has no more. The tax collectors will have none of it, however; the one on the left stiffens his lips This celebrated composition belongs to a group of works in the Metsys corpus which form a departure from the religious subjects (most famously the Altarpiece of the Lamentation in Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum and The Altarpiece of the Holy Kindred in Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts) and portraits (Desiderius Erasmus, London, Royal Collection) which formed the mainstay of his career. The shared character of this third group has been variously described as 'caricature' or 'grotesque', and can be exemplified by his Grotesque Old Woman of circa 1525-30 (London, National Gallery). While Metsys certainly seems to have taken a great visual pleasure in inventing the striking caricatural types that people such works, they are always imbued with a deeper satirical meaning.
The signature in the present lot, 'Quintyn. M. ff', can probably be read as a studio signature, indicating Metsys's involvement in the invention, and possibly in the execution of the painting. The sophistication of the subject, the originality of the physiognomies depicted and the quality of the design all point to the authorial presence of Metsys himself, although no known version of this composition has been conclusively demonstrated to be entirely in Metsys's own hand, and it is possible that the prototype was a drawing or cartoon from which this version was painted. We are grateful to Dr. Larry Silver of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Maximiliaan Martens of the University of Ghent for independently confirming the attribution to the Workshop of Quinten Metsys on the basis of photographs.
This painting is one of the two best examples of the type, the other being a slightly smaller version in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome (inv. no. 290/307, for which see M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, VII, ed. H. Pauwels, 1971, p. 81, suppl. 174 and pl. 122, as possibly autograph; and E. Safarik, La Galleria Doria Pamphilj a Roma, Rome, 1982, p. 98, no. 148, illustrated, as autograph). Known as the Caricature di quattro uomini ('Gli usurai'), the Doria painting resembles the present painting in many details, including the inscriptions on the books. It differs, however, in its lack of a signature; in its colour scheme; in details of the open book and coins; and in the absence of the tacking depicted along the lower edge, which represents a piece of cloth tacked to the front of the tax collectors' counter, but also serves as a visual pun on the tacking edge of a painting on canvas (which obviously this picture, a work on panel, would otherwise lack). The Doria version also lacks the degree of underdrawing evident in the present work, and which is of art-historical interest to the study of Metsys's workshop practice.
We are grateful to Mr. Roberto Russo of Numismatica Ars Classica for identifying the coins, which include several gold nobles, probably English and from the period 1327-1553 (Edward III to Edward VI), shown both in obverse and in reverse; several English gold Angels (also called angel-nobles) from the period 1399-1547 (Henry IV to Henry VIII); what may be a silver groat of Henry VI (reigned 1422-1471); a silver testone of Ercole d'Este of Ferrara (reigned 1471-1505); and several gold dos excelentes in the name of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, probably struck in the Netherlands during the reign of Charles V (reigned 1516-1556). Of particular interest is the fact that the metal of the coins is correctly observed, which shows that they were painted from real models, rather than from a Muntboek (a merchant's manual illustrating currency in international circulation), as has sometimes been the case in other pictures (see L. Campbell, The Early Flemish Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, Cambridge, 1985, p. 114). The accurate depiction of such an accumulation of coins, and its implication of direct access to them, would have been read by contemporary viewers as an indication of Metsys's wealth and of the success of his painting practice. We are also grateful to Mr. Jan van Helmont for pointing out that the signet ring on the right hand of the leftmost tax collector bears a Hausmark, an identifying symbol used by merchants and money changers to stamp goods and documents. Further research into this particular Hausmark could shed more light on the circumstances in which the present picture was painted; it is not clear to what extent the ring in the Doria picture resembles that in the present work.