It’s been a while since I first saw Marten and Oopjen in the Rijksmuseum: two life-size portraits by Rembrandt, so realistic that my memory likes me to believe I saw the cute newlyweds in person. I was invited to the museum for a private evening opening with just 50 other visitors. Never had I seen such few people in front of the Night Watch in the Gallery of Honor and such a crowd just left of it, in front of the newly acquired duo portraits. But what I remember most vividly of that evening was the speech delivered by previous director Wim Pijbes. This is the most remarkable story of how two Rembrandt paintings came to the Rijksmuseum…and would soon leave it again.
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It’s six ‘o clock and I am in Amsterdam. I am watching the sun setting at Museumplein. I watch the people climbing the IAmsterdam letters in front of the Rijksmuseum, not one without someone taking their pictures. I am waiting for the Rijksmuseum to open. That’s right, it’s going to re-open in the evening. The occasion? A thank you from the Rijksmuseum to Dutch coffee company Douwe Egberts, sponsor of coffee during the insanely busy time after the duo portraits arrived. And I? I just happen to know someone in Douwe Egberts who know how much I love art. This is how I end up among the richest art in my country’s history with just 50 other persons.
The evening begins with a lively explanation of where the paintings come from. Rembrandt painted them in Amsterdam, being acquainted with the rich and famous of the city. Marten and Oopjen were two very young lovers who were very rich due to Marten’s trading business. That’s how they could afford their portraits. Quite unusual elsewhere: only in the Netherlands could non-royal people afford portraiture without fearing an envious king punishing them for hybris.
Skip forward to the 21st century, we find the paintings in the bedroom of the family Rothschild, somewhere in France. French doors wide open. Fresh air and humidity taking care of the portraits. Cigarette smoke circling the frame. The Marie Antoinette bed, an art piece on itself, separating the two newlyweds by some meters. These are the circumstances in which Taco Dibbits (present director of the Rijksmuseum, then head curator) and Wim Pijbes (previous director) see the two paintings for the first time.
Overexposed snapshots with a cheap camera adjourn the presentation, that evening in the Rijksmuseum. “Look, that’s where they hung, right above the Rothschilds bed. What they must have seen happening in that bed for years….”. The boyish excitement of finding an unexpected treasure in an unexpected place is written all over the face of Taco Dibbits in the snapshot. Like a child who finds an extremely rare type of candy in the candy jar, after looking to find it for years. But the two most expensive two candies the Rijksmuseum would ever acquire. There couldn’t have been a bigger contradiction between these snapshots and the seriousness of the deal about to be made.
These portraits were the largest that Rembrandt would ever paint. And now they left the Rothschilds estate for 160 million euros. I repeat, 160 million euros.
But the pair is as stunning as you expect from Rembrandt portraits. Every detail is correct, natural, and true. As my eyes run up and down over the cloths, the faces, the hands, and every other detail, I feel the same excitement as Taco Dibbits in that bedroom, studying Marten en Oopjen for the first time. And I am pretty sure my face looks largely the same.