Courtauld “fake” exposed as a real Dutch period piece

The Art Newspaper 30 September 2009
By Martin Bailey

Work attributed to 20th-century master forger Han van Meegeren may be 17th-century painting owned by Vermeer

Not what it seemes: The Procuress, Golden Age copy of Baburen brothel painting

Not what it seemes: The Procuress, Golden Age copy of Baburen brothel painting

A “fake” in the Courtauld Gallery, believed to be by the master forger Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), is a genuine Dutch Golden Age painting, new research has revealed. It is a version of The Procuress, a 1622 brothel scene by Dirck van Baburen, which is also depicted in the background of two works by Vermeer. It is now believed that the Courtauld’s painting may, in fact, be the work that Vermeer once had. 

The Courtauld’s painting of The Procuress was acquired in 1960, when it was donated as a Van Meegeren. Arguably the most notorious faker of the 20th century, he forged a series of early “Vermeers”. He was only exposed in 1945, after being accused of selling a newly discovered Vermeer to the Nazi military leader, Hermann Goering. 

The Procuress was presented to the Courtauld by Professor Geoffrey Webb, a specialist on historic architecture. He had been a senior monuments and fine arts officer in Germany just after World War II and apparently received the painting in the Netherlands as a gift for helping to restitute works of art. He believed it was a Van Meegeren fake that had been recovered by the Dutch authorities in 1945 from the forger’s villa in Nice. 

When Anthony Blunt, then director of the Courtauld Insti­tute, accepted The Procur­ess, few questions were asked. Queries raised in the 1970s by Dutch scholar Marijke van den Brandhof were not followed up. There is no record of the painting ever having been hung in the gallery, although it was lent to three exhibitions on fakes (British Museum, 1961; Min­neapolis Institute of Arts, 1973; and the Hayward Gallery, London, 1986).  

Over the past year, Court­auld specialists and The Art Newspaper have investigated The Procuress. It is now believed that the painting is a 17th-century version of the Baburen. What makes this discovery particularly exciting is that it could well have been a picture once hanging in Ver­meer’s house in Delft. 

There are two other versions of The Procuress which were thought to be the original, until now. The first, at the Rijks­museum in Amsterdam, was considered the prime picture. But in 1949 another version, from an English private collection, emerged, and was auctioned at Christie’s. It was a finer picture and was accepted as the original. The following year it was bought by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  

The Courtauld’s picture is slightly closer in dimensions to the original Baburen in Boston, which had only emerged in 1949, two years after Van Meegeren’s death.  

Research also suggested that it was unlikely The Procuress had been found at Nice. Van Meegeren’s villa was searched by Dutch police investigators in 1945. Official documents record the discovery of only four paintings, which did not include The Procuress.  

Scientific work at the Courtauld now confirms that the picture could well date from the 17th century. The 98cm x 103cm canvas is old (although theoretically a faker could have reused a canvas), but more importantly there is no evidence—from a sample analysis—that modern pigments have been used. There was also nothing on an X-ray to suggest it was a modern fake. 

Putting all the evidence together, Courtauld curator Caroline Campbell now believes it is “likely to be a 17th-century painting”. She admits to being “surprised” at the results of the investigation, because it had originally been accepted as a Van Meegeren. 

The Procuress has also been examined by the National Gallery’s Dutch curator, Betsy Wieseman. She concurs, saying that after a close visual examination, she believes it has “every appearance of being of 17th-century origin”. However, because of its lesser quality, she considers it is either from Baburen’s studio in Utrecht or another copyist. 

The possible link with Vermeer is intriguing. Ac­cording to a 1641 inventory, his mother-in-law, Maria Thins, owned “a painting wherein a procuress points to the hand” (which is what is happening in the Baburen). She probably later brought the picture to Delft, where her daughter Catherina married Vermeer in 1653, and the family then all lived together. One of Vermeer’s earliest paintings (now in Dresden), dated 1656, is also of a procuress, although it is very different in composition from the Baburen. 

The Procuress by Baburen appears in the background of two of Vermeer’s paintings: The Concert, around 1664 (Gardner Museum, Boston, stolen in 1990) and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, around 1671 (National Gallery, London). 

The mystery is what happened to Vermeer’s version of The Procuress. The original, now in Boston, can possibly be traced back to Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, who died in 1753. The version at the Rijksmuseum (on loan from the City of Amsterdam) was presented by Gijsbert de Clercq in 1898. A third lesser copy is in a private collection (sold at Sotheby’s, Amsterdam, 6 May 1996, lot 50 and before that it went unsold at Christie’s in 1968 and 1969), but nothing is known of its earlier provenance. 

The Courtauld picture is now the fourth, and its provenance also remains obscure. Before being acquired by the Courtauld, it was exhibited once, in a touring show on fakes in 1952-53 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Kunstmuseum, Basel; and Corning Museum, New York State). No owner is recorded in the catalogues, but it was probably Webb (who died in 1970). Presumably it was indeed given to Webb in the Netherlands in 1945 (there have been suggestions that it had been presented by Dutch intelligence officer and art specialist Jean Vlug), but its Nazi-era provenance is unknown. It could well have remained in the Netherlands since it was painted in the 17th century. 

The Courtauld picture is not, of course, for sale, but it is interesting to consider whether it is more valuable financially as a 17th-century copy or a Van Meegeren fake? The answer is that there is probably relatively little difference, since Van Meegeren is such an iconic forger. A Vermeer provenance would add considerably to the value—but that would be difficult to prove.
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