Yesterday’s news that the Dutch Government and the Rijksmuseum had agreed on a price of €160m, half financed by the government and half raised through donations by the museum, to acquire two Rembrandt portraits owned by the Rothschild family since 1877 underscores an important facet of the art market, the presumption that art is a bubble.
As the New York Times’s report shows, the oft-repeated complaint that museums cannot afford the best art is not entirely true. More to the point, the fact that these governments, institutions and their constituents are willing to pay these prices for exceptional works of art confirms the broad acceptance of those prices. That’s not a small point:
Taco Dibbits, the director of collections at the Rijksmuseum, said the museum was capitalizing on an extremely rare opportunity to acquire works that almost never come on the market. “Rembrandts like these, I mean they just don’t happen,” Mr. Dibbits said in a phone interview. “The last Rembrandt that is comparable to this one is the ‘Aristotle’ that sold in 1961 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” That work, “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer,” was purchased for $2.3 million. […]
Of the 80 million euros the government plans to contribute, 30 million will come from a cultural heritage fund and 50 million from state treasury dividends from partly state-owned companies like the railroads, said the Dutch Culture Ministry spokesman, Job Slok.
Mr. Witte, the art historian, said he was surprised by the willingness of the government to pay such a high price. “We’ve seen record prices offered for modern art in the last two or three years at auction,” he said, “but museums have been saying that we can no longer cash out with the art market.” He added, “This would be a sign that if they really want it they can somehow manage to get that kind of money together.”
Some museums have also been willing to pay top prices for coveted works. In November 2014, for example, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles bought Manet’s “Le Printemps (Jeanne Demarsy)” for $65 million at Christie’s.
Until now, the most the Dutch government had paid for a painting was 80 million guilders (about $50 million) for Mondrian’s “Victory Boogie Woogie,” sold by the American businessman S. I. Newhouse in 1998. The purchase stirred controversy
Rembrandt Portraits May Come Home, for Record Price, With Government Help (The New York Times)