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Controversy Erupts over Purchase by Rijksmuseum of Early Mondriaan

The top of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag criticizes the Rijksmuseum for its purchase of an early Mondriaan windmill.

As reported in CODART News of the day on 17 August ("Early Mondriaan moonlight view acquired by the Rijksmuseum"), the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has purchased for €495,000 a painting by Piet Mondriaan of the Gein River near Abcoude. With its resemblance to 17th-century paintings of windmills, the Mondriaan is intended to serve a bridge function in the New Rijksmuseum between Dutch painting of the 20th century and the Golden Age.

The next day, 18 August, saw the appearance in the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad of an op-ed piece by Hans Janssen, curator of modern art of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, and the museum director, Wim van Krimpen, criticizing the acquisition. It is highly unusual for Dutch museums to come out in the open with critical comments about their colleagues.

Janssen and van Krimpen make the following points:

– The Oostzijde windmill "is all right, … but we may ask whether it is really a good painting, let alone functional for the intended purpose."

– "The Gemeentemuseum Den Haag has 13 paintings and drawings of windmills by Piet Mondriaan,… at least seven of which may be said to outshine the proud new purchase of the Rijksmuseum."

– "The Oostzijde windmill at night" (parenthetically, Janssen and van Krimpen doubt that it is a night scene), "is typically a painting that would not establish Mondriaan’s reputation as a great 20th-century master."

– "Among the seven Gemeentemuseum paintings by Mondriaan of windmills are two that also would not succeed in establishing a link [with the Golden Age] but that are painted less timidly. The Gemeentemuseum never shows them because we have about 40 Mondriaans of that kind that for some reason or other have our preference. They are never on view, and are therefore never requested by other museums for exhibitions."

– "The Rijksmuseum could have had one of those two paintings on long-term loan for the asking, without us requesting anything in return…. This offer was actually made and was turned down. The message we received was that the Rijksmuseum wished to make a statement [with its acquisition]."

The article by Janssen and van Krimpen covers these and other topics in some detail. It refrains from criticizing the amount paid for the new acquisition. Equally unusual is that the art dealer who sold the painting to the Rijksmuseum, Simonis & Buunk in Ede, placed an advertisement in NRC Handelsblad on 18 August congratulating itself and the town of Ede for this coup. The gallery, led by Frank Buunk, writes that it discovered the painting in Denmark, bought it and lent it to Mondriaanhuis in Amersfoort while looking for a buyer.

The Rijksmuseum curator responsible for the purchase, Jenny Reynaerts, told the newspaper that the museum had various reasons for turning down the offer of the Gemeentemuseum. "We wanted to have a Mondriaan of our own. The two pieces on offer had to be restored. Moreover, the work we bought is more attractive."

The following day, the same newspaper reported that Oostzijde windmill was sold at auction in Denmark in 2000 for a hammer price of €268,676. Buunk bid at the sale but did not go that far. Last year, following the death of the buyer, it came back on the block. This time Buunk bought it for €174,000. The Rijksmuseum had no comment on why it did not bid at the sale in Denmark.

On the op-ed page of that same issue, NRC Handelsblad placed a reaction by Frank Buunk to the article by Janssen and van Krimpen. Defending the wish of the Rijksmuseum to own a Mondriaan of its own rather than a borrowed piece, he draws a comparison with the feeling he enjoys on the old wooden sailboat that belongs to him, which "sails differently" than a borrowed polyster model, however luxurious. He explains the price of the painting with reference to "a high middleman commission and the so-called droit de suite, a kind of copyright for the heirs of an artist, that has been charged for some time in Denmark." Buunk claims that he was sorry not to have bought the painting in 2000, and that this time he was prepared to pay €500,000 for it. Buunk also disputes Janssen and van Krimpen’s opinion of the art-historical significance of the painting, writing "This Mondriaan may be the key work in Dutch landscape painting around the turn of the century.


The last word has not yet been said on this matter, which involves a number of major issues, such as:

– should a Dutch museum in search of an acquisition of a certain kind give preference to items already in the "Collectie Nederland" – the totality of museum objects in public collections?

– To what extent is a public museum responsible for judging the profit made on an acquisition by the seller?

– Is the Rijksmuseum justified in adding 20th-century art to its scope?

– Can the Rijksmuseum make good on its pretence to cover the 20th century adequately?

24 August 2005: A continuation of the discussion, including a letter to the editor by Peter Sigmond, director of collections of the Rijksmuseum, can be found in the Rijksmuseum dossier on the website of NRC Handelsblad.

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