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Rijksmuseum in Negotiations to Buy £40m Rembrandt from Private British Collection

From the Art Newspaper Newsletter by Martin Bailey (Posted 25 January 2007)

One of Britain’s greatest privately-owned Rembrandts is likely to be sold to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The museum is negotiating to acquire Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet from Penrhyn Castle, for a price of around £40m. This is more than double any Rembrandt sold at auction.

The Penrhyn Rembrandt would also be the most expensive work of art ever acquired by a Dutch museum. The Rijksmuseum is only likely to be able to proceed if it receives a special government grant, and this will need cabinet approval, with a decision expected next month. Such a grant would have to cover well over half the cost. Applications would be made to the state lottery and other donors. The museum would also have to make a substantial contribution from its own funds.

Catrina Hooghsaet was painted in 1657 when she was 50, the same age as Rembrandt. She was the wife of an Amsterdam Mennonite preacher, and her demeanour suggests that she was wealthy and confident.

The portrait did not remain in her family for long and by the early 18th century it belonged to the 7th Earl of Westmorland. It was acquired by the 1st Baron Penrhyn in 1860 and since then has remained at Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, in north Wales. The house and much of the contents are now owned by the National Trust, and the picture was until recently on view in the Breakfast Room.

Last November the Rijksmuseum borrowed Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet as part of the celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth (the picture had only returned to the Netherlands twice, the last time 50 years ago).

Rijksmuseum curator Taco Dibbits says that when the case with the painting was opened, he and his colleagues were astonished at the quality of the work. “It looked so fantastic next to our own Rembrandts that we began to dream of acquiring it for the Dutch nation,” he told The Art Newspaper. The Rijksmuseum has no Rembrandts of the 1650s and no monumental female portraits by the artist.

The museum then contacted the Penrhyn family’s art advisor, London-based Stephen Somerville. He confirmed to The Art Newspaper that “there have been friendly discussions about a possible sale, and the Rijksmuseum is aware of its insurance value.” He would not comment on the price, but other sources suggest that this might be in the region of £40m.

Until now, the record price of a Rembrandt at auction was for the 1632 Portrait of a lady, which sold at Christie’s in 2000 for £19.8m. This price could also be approached later today by St James the Greater, which comes up for sale at Sotheby’s, New York, with an estimate of $18m-25m (£9.2m-12.7m).

Lady Janet Pennant Douglas, the head of the Penrhyn family, died in 1997 and her principal heir is her son Richard, who is a poet. In 2004 the family sold Jan Steen’s masterpiece The Burgomaster of Delft and his daughter to the Rijksmuseum for £8.1m.

A year earlier they had sold Adam Pynacker Landscape with arched gateway for £317,000, in a joint purchase by the National Museum and Gallery of Wales and the National Trust. In recent years ownership of three major groups of works of art have also been transferred to the National Trust in lieu of inheritance tax.

Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet is owned by a trust, Penrhyn Settled Estates, whose four trustees include Richard Douglas Pennant.

If the sale to the Rijksmuseum proceeds, a UK export licence would be virtually certain to be deferred, because of the painting’s importance, and this would allow a UK buyer to match the price. The public collections with a special interest would be the National Trust (to keep the picture at Penrhyn), the National Museum and Gallery of Wales in Cardiff and the National Gallery in London.

The Rembrandt portrait has been conditionally exempt from inheritance tax, and there would be a substantial financial advantage in a sale to a UK public collection. Such a buyer would therefore receive a significant discount on the open market price, although it would still be a huge sum. Indeed, it would be the most expensive work of art ever bought by a British public collection (exceeding Raphael’s Madonna of the pinks, purchased by the National Gallery in 2004 for £22m, after tax advantages).

Meanwhile, Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet remains on loan to the Rijksmuseum until 29 April. If it then stays in Amsterdam, there will be three Rembrandt masterpieces left in British private collections: Judas and the thirty pieces of silver (Marchioness of Normanby, loaned for two months every year to the National Gallery), An old Woman reading (Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, on view at Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire) and a 1657 Self-portrait (Duke of Sutherland, on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland since 1945).

Astonishingly, in 1949 Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet was valued at only £1,000, with the family’s pre-war Rolls Royce worth three times more. The car still survives at Penrhyn Castle, although its value has long been eclipsed by the Rembrandt.

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