Interest in the Old Masters category of collecting has seen a resurgence in the past few years as auction houses have learned that there are indeed people willing to pay prices for vintage masterpieces akin to dollar amounts going to contemporary art—the more-expensive collecting category over the past two decades or so.
But who exactly are the buyers of some of these historically important artworks? That’s the premise of My Rembrandt, a new documentary directed by Oeke Hoogendijk that aims to tell the stories of some of some of the people who own work by the ultimate 17th-century Dutch Golden Age master.
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The film begins inside a Scottish castle, later revealed to be that of the Duke of Buccleuch, one of Europe’s largest landowners. We slowly watch the camera pan over Rembrandt’s Old Woman Reading, which is hung high above a fireplace in a reading room. Up close, we see the brushstrokes that make up the old woman’s hands, her bonnet, her eyes. “She is the most powerful presence in this house,” the Duke says. Later, he wonders, “How did he do it? I don’t know, but I think we feel it—don’t we?—from our deepest subconscious.”
That Hoogendijk convinced top collectors, who tend to be extremely private when it comes to discussing what they own, is a remarkable feat. In addition to the Duke of Buccleuch, other notable collectors in the film include Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, who have appeared on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list each year since 2012; Eric de Rothschild, listed on the Top 200 each year between 1991 and 2018; American collector Thomas Kaplan; and Jan Six XI, a Dutch aristocrat who is one of the film’s main protagonists.
But My Rembrandt tries to cover too much ground, telling too many stories that fail to tie together as the film becomes more a series of interwoven vignettes than a cohesive documentary. Despite her incredible access, it’s unclear what Hoogendijk imagined as the through-line for a film that is hard to follow at times.
We see Six, who is also an art dealer, meet with the van Otterloos as he tries to sell them a painting of a religious scene that he says could be a Rembrandt. We see the Duke of Buccleuch take down his Rembrandt and consider moving it to a different part of his castle.
Kaplan, who by contrast doesn’t live with any of the artworks he owns, attends the opening of works from his collection at the Louvre Museum in Paris. He mentions that at one point in his life he considered the pursuit of collecting art an act of vulgar materialism—but then notes that he and his wife, Daphne, acquired on average a painting a week for about five years for a collection that now includes 10 Rembrandts. In one disturbing moment, Kaplan reveals that after he purchased Rembrandt’s The Woman with a White Cap, he realized he had “the legal right to touch it”—and went so far as to kiss the painted woman’s lips.
In another tale, the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam spar over which institution will acquire two Rembrandt portraits that de Rothschild and his brother want to sell for €160 million to pay off a tax bill. After what escalates into a diplomatic nightmare, the museum’s respective countries agree to acquire the two paintings jointly.
Among the film’s many asides, the main plot of My Rembrandt focuses on Jan Six and his journey to prove himself as not a smug Dutch aristocrat but an important scholar with an eye for spotting Rembrandt masterpieces that others hadn’t given a second thought.
In 2016, Six was flipping through a Christie’s catalogue when he noticed a painting of a man with an intricate lace collar that stopped him in his tracks. He was incensed when he saw that the auction house had attributed the painting, titled Portrait of a Young Gentleman, to the “Circle of Rembrandt,” believing that it was indeed by the master himself. (A 2019 article in the New York Times Magazine delved into details as to why the painting couldn’t have been by a follower of Rembrandt—mainly that, in the 1630s, the artist was not yet famous and thus wouldn’t have had a workshop filled with disciples.)
Six sets out on a mission to prove that the painting he ended up purchasing for €153,000 is the real deal, meeting with the esteemed Rembrandt scholar Ernst van de Wetering, who at first is unsure if the painting is indeed by Rembrandt. Six then contacts other experts who say it could be, but that they need to study it more. The most telling moment in the saga is when we see an insolent Six complaining that the scholars wouldn’t authenticate the painting on the spot.
Eventually, Six does prove that the work he purchased is an authentic Rembrandt and he takes his victory lap, publishing a book on the work and basically telling his critics, “I told you so.” But the story proves confusing when, in the last few minutes of the documentary, we learn that there was a huge scandal that rocked the Dutch art world in which another dealer, Sander Bijl, accused Six of secretly going back on a deal they made to buy the newly attributed Rembrandt together.
A film focused solely on Six’s row with the other art dealer, Kaplan’s eccentricities, or the Louvre-Rijksmuseum battle could have been epic on its own. But My Rembrandt is more of a mish-mosh that, in the end, shows the wealth of those who can afford to pay top dollar for masterpieces without revealing much else.
My Rembrandt is available to rent view Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema program.