‘My highlight of 2016’ — Two masterpieces by Rembrandt

‘My highlight of 2016’ — Two masterpieces by Rembrandt

How a joint acquisition by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum saw two exceptional portraits become the most expensive Old Master paintings in history

Christie’s 250th anniversary year commenced in momentous and auspicious fashion when, on 1 February, two exceptional portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) were confirmed to have been jointly acquired by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum. Facilitated through Christie’s Private Sales channel, the works were purchased for €160 million (€80 million each), becoming the most expensive Old Master paintings in history.

For Henry Pettifer, Head of Old Master Paintings, the portraits were 'the most important' works he had handled in his career. 'When they came to Christie's, they had not been seen in public since 1956,' he explains. 'It was extraordinary — almost unimaginable — to see them for the first time.' 

Painted in 1634, when Rembrandt was just 28 years old, the works depict Marten Soolmans and his wife Oopjen Coppit, a year after their marriage. Soolmans was the scion of a wealthy Calvinist family, and had first met Rembrandt during his stay in Leiden from 1628 to 1633. Two years his elder, his wife Oopjen was the orphan of an old and respected Amsterdam family, and brought Soolmans both prestige, and a significant dowry of 35,000 guilders.

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), Portrait of Marten Soolmans, 1634. Canvas size 209.5 x 135.5 cm. Sight size 207.5 x 132 cm

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), Portrait of Marten Soolmans, 1634. Canvas size: 209.5 x 135.5 cm. Sight size: 207.5 x 132 cm

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), Portrait of Oopjen Coppit, 1634. Canvas size 210 x 134.5 cm. Sight size 207.5 x 132 cm

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), Portrait of Oopjen Coppit, 1634. Canvas size: 210 x 134.5 cm. Sight size: 207.5 x 132 cm

At the time these works were completed Rembrandt was one of the most fashionable portraitists in Holland, commissioned to paint a new class of wealthy traders during a period of unparalleled economic prosperity. His portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit are among the grandest he ever painted, a tribute to the status of his sitters and the importance of their patronage to the young artist.

The works entered the prestigious Rothschild collection in 1878 and as such were rarely exhibited in public before this year, having last been shown in 1956, in the Netherlands. Following their joint acquisition, it was announced that they would be displayed alternately at the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum, and would always be displayed together. The deal, negotiated by Christie’s, was the first of its kind.

‘It is a testament to the vision shown by the French Republic, the Louvre, the State of the Netherlands and the Rijksmuseum that these two great Rembrandt van Rijn portraits will now take their place among the greatest works of art in the heart of Europe, to be appreciated for many generations to come,’ said Patricia Barbizet, Christie’s Chief Executive Officer, observing that the company’s role in this ‘historic sale’ was a fitting start to its anniversary year.

Henry Pettifer added: 'This was an historic sale in the Old Masters arena, both in terms of the price realised for the works, and the fact that they were jointly acquired by two much-loved institutions.'