A Drawing Discovered at Auction Is a Part of Dutch History

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AMSTERDAM — In art world parlance, you’d call the drawing a “sleeper.” A small auction house in Massachusetts offered it for sale as a “an unidentified gentleman, initialed I.L., and dated 1652,” with an estimate of $200 to $300. Within about 10 minutes, it sold for half a million dollars.

The New York dealer who bought the piece, Christopher Bishop, is now bringing it to what is one of the world’s top art fairs, TEFAF Maastricht, where it will be featured on the shortlist of fair highlights, with an asking price of 1.35 million euros (about $1.44 million).

How did it go from being a little bit of nothing to a great big deal? History, you could say.

The story begins at the turn of the 17th century, when a 9-year-old Dutch boy named Maerten Tromp went to sea with his father, a naval officer. Three years later, English pirates murdered his father, but Maerten joined the Dutch Navy in 1637 and rose through the ranks to become commander of the Dutch fleet.

He was a determined combatant, and frequently victorious. After great success through the First Anglo-Dutch War, he sat for a formal portrait by a Dutch master, Jan Lievens, in Amsterdam. A year later, in 1653, he was killed by an English sharpshooter during a battle, entombed in a marble monument and celebrated as a Dutch national hero.

The original Lievens drawing was pinned to an engraving plate (upside down) and turned into a print, reproduced dozens of times. Lievens later made a new drawing based on the first, with Tromp appearing a little wizened; this second drawing is now in the collection of the British Museum in London.

He also used the original drawing as the basis of two oil paintings of Tromp, one of which is now in the Rijksmuseum’s collection and the other in private hands.

In 1943, this image of Tromp again became a template for a postage stamp featuring Tromp, a kind of nationalist gesture by the Dutch government in the middle of World War II.

The original drawing was traded among private collectors. It was last inventoried among the possessions of the English collector William Mayor, who died in 1874, and last seen in public at an auction of the estate of Robert P. Roupell in Frankfurt in 1888. Then it disappeared from public view for 132 years.

In 2020, Mr. Bishop was working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, scanning online auction catalogs for finds. An image of a drawing at the small Marion Antique Auction house, on the Massachusetts mainland near Cape Cod, caught his eye. Although it was purportedly signed “I.L.,” Bishop realized that the monogram could be “J.L.” because “J” in the 17th century was often written “I.”

“I put it in the back of my mind, and then I pondered for a couple of hours,” he said. “It just occurred to me, why couldn’t it be Jan Lievens? Then I did some research online and saw the print. I thought could this be the original from which the printmaker made the engraving.”

A few days later, Mr. Bishop was able to find the record of Mayor’s collection, which told him that the dimensions matched the Marion’s drawing, and that the monogram was written under Tromp’s arm. He booked a viewing and drove up to Massachusetts; because he couldn’t go inside, the auction house owner brought it outside so that he could look at it on the porch.

“I knew it was a real drawing, and I had a very positive feeling,” he said. “I was trying very hard not to telegraph to them how optimistic I was about it.”

Frank McNamee, co-owner of Marion auctions, said it had come from a family that was looking to auction off quite a bit of hand-painted porcelain. He visited their house and was invited into a room of framed prints. The owner told him, he said in a phone interview, “Just pick whatever you think might have value.” Mr. McNamee saw the portrait and was intrigued. “I actually thought it was a fake Rembrandt,” he said.

“There wasn’t enough time to really spend on researching it, but I made sure it got featured in all the auction advertisements,” Mr. McNamee added. He said they estimated it at only a few hundred dollars, “assuming that we might not be right.”

By the time of the sale on Oct. 10, 2020, it was clear that the drawing had already garnered a lot of curiosity. More than 15 potential bidders had called about it before the sale, and although there were only half a dozen people inside the auction room because of Covid, at least five people placed bids over the phone. Lots of people had the same idea that Mr. Bishop did. They thought it might be the long-lost Lievens.

When the auctioneer, Dave Glynn, reached $200,000 he paused. “It looks like we underestimated this one,” he said, before continuing.

After about $300,000, Mr. McNamee said, only two bidders remained. They drove the price up to $514,800, which was where the hammer fell. Even at that point, Mr. Bishop wasn’t entirely sure the drawing was a Lievens.

“It had numerous condition issues,” Mr. McNamee explained. “It was damaged and it was laid down, or glued onto a backing, and that causes issues with acid, burning into the work. From what I remember, that was an issue with that, as well as some paper loss to the piece, but not in the image.”

Mr. Bishop took it back to New York. A restorer removed it from its backing to discover that the paper on which the drawing had been made had a watermark — an identifying pattern that indicated its 17th-century maker. It was a particularly unique paper supplier that both Lievens and Rembrandt had used in Amsterdam in the 1650s — a telltale sign of its authenticity.

When Bishop compared it with one of the prints made from the subsequent engraving, a lot of other elements aligned: the pinpricks where the drawing would have been attached to the plate, the certain folds and tracings, and even ink blotches left on the paper.

“There’s no question in my mind that this is the portrait of Admiral Tromp that was recorded in old collections but that had disappeared,” said Gregory Rubinstein, head of Sotheby’s Old Masters Drawings Department in London, who subsequently examined the drawing. “It’s a totally authentic and really important example of a Lievens portrait drawing.”

Mr. Rubinstein had heard about the drawing in the Marion sale; he saw the work for the first time in person earlier this year in New York. “It was more impressive than I had expected,” he said. “It’s turned out to be everything that one would have hoped.”

The magazine Master Drawings in January published an article by Mr. Rubinstein about the Lievens drawing, in which he called it “the starting point for a great sequence of Trompiana,” or iconography of “huge national importance,” and a crucial piece of Dutch national patrimony.

While Mr. Rubinstein wouldn’t fault a small antiques auctioneer for missing its significance, he said that there was unlikely to be much doubt about its value among old masters connoisseurs at TEFAF.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said, “If we had missed it, I wouldn’t still have my job.”

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