When it comes to the history of prints as an artform, it is difficult to overstate the importance of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69).
The great Dutch master is regarded by many as the most original printmaker of all time.
He was certainly one of the most experimental, reworking and continually scratching at his copper etching plates to improve and extend their emotional and expressive power.
Rembrandt’s earliest etchings date from c.1626, when he was 20. He continued to print hundreds of impressions until his death, constantly experimenting with a medium well suited to his love of graphical nuance and subtle effects.
Biblical scenes, landscapes and, of course, portraits were his main subjects – some likely printed to advertise his prowess as a painter – but they tended to be much smaller in scale than anything he produced with his paintbrush.
While the largest etchings measure 21 x 18in (54 x 46cm), some are about the size of a Post-it note: smaller than 2½in (6cm) high.
Within his lifetime Rembrandt etched around 300 plates, many of which he kept revising by adding or removing to the composition as the printing ‘matrix’ degraded. Some plates were then reused and even ‘refreshed’ numerous times after he died. For this reason, the question of ‘states’ dominate the study of prints by the artist and remains an essential factor in the market too.
Over the years, diligent and careful analysis of Rembrandt’s printed work (as well as studies of the paper types and watermarks) has helped establish the timeline of each print. In general market terms, it is a case of the earlier the better.
Most sale catalogues will feature both the date of the original etching and its ‘state’ typically accompanied by reference to one or more scholarly books on the subject.
These include the 21-volume catalogue of prints by Dutch, Flemish, German and Italian painter engravers by Austrian scholar and artist Adam von Bartsch (1757-1821). It was Bartsch who established what became the definitive numbering system still used for many artists including Rembrandt.
A more recent reference work is Friedrich Wilhelm Hollstein’s (1888-1957) Dutch & Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, 1450- 1700. The Berlin print dealer and auctioneer published the first volume of his assiduous study in 1949, with the 30th and last volume appearing more than 60 years later.
Many catalogue entries will feature the words ‘New Hollstein’ followed by a series of figures to show the reference number he used, the state of the particular print and how many states of the print exist.
The large number of individual prints and the multiplicity of states largely explains why Rembrandt prints cover such a wide price range.
At the top of the market, wellpreserved ‘lifetime’ versions of Rembrandt’s best-known and most striking prints can easily command six-figure sums. The current record price was set at Christie’s in July 2018 when one of only eight impressions of the first state of the 1655 etching Christ presented to the people (‘Ecce Homo’) sold for an astonishing £2.2m – more than triple any other auction result for a Rembrandt etching. The highest price of recent years is a version of the 1643 etching The Three Trees sold for £320,000 at Christie’s in July 2021.
But most Old Master prints command much smaller sums. It is still possible to acquire an original Rembrandt lifetime print in the low thousands of pounds (particularly the later and less popular ones) while, curiously, posthumous versions of the most sought after prints can make more, even over £10,000. A further subset of collecting is provided by the direct copies of Rembrandt’s prints created by 18th, 19th and 20th century artists – the ‘after Rembrandt’ etchings that fetch sums in the hundreds of pounds or less.
This is, therefore, a sector where you do not need to be a millionaire to start collecting although, as always, it does help.
Stepping up to the plates
The copper plates produced by Rembrandt have become part of printmaking legend. Reworked and reused time and again during his life, they were subject to further changes as the demand for Old Master prints increased in later epochs. So, what happened to Rembrandt’s original copper plates?
Intriguingly, when Rembrandt’s house and chattels were auctioned in the late 1650s to pay his spiralling debts, his copper plates and etching tools were not included. It may have been that he had already sold them or that his creditors allowed him to keep them as the ‘tools of his trade’.
A group of 74 of them were recorded in 1677 in an inventory of the estate of Rembrandt’s friend, the print dealer Clement de Jonghe. After various changes of ownership, almost all of the recorded plates ended up in France, with the bulk amassed by the art critic and collector Claude Henri Watelet (1718-86).
He took the opportunity to release ‘new’ editions of some of Rembrandt’s etchings, as did subsequent owners such as August Jean between 1805-10 and Alvin Beaumont in the early 20th century (whose series of Rembrandt etchings is known as the ‘Beaumont impressions’).
While Beaumont started negotiations to sell the plates to the Rijksmuseum and the British Museum, in 1938 he sold all 78 that he owned to American collector Robert Lee Humber. His heirs later sold the plates in 1993 to a select group of museums and a handful of dealers.
Of around 300 plates, around 80 are believed to still exist today – the most recent addition to the corpus of survivors was sold at Christie’s in June 1997. The copper plate for Abraham entertaining the Angels was found on the back of a painting by Flemish artist Pieter Gysels which itself had been bought in a Yorkshire antiques shop for £60.
Estimated at £35,000-45,000, it sold for £190,000. Could more be out there?
The many states of the market
A Q&A with Richard Carroll, works on paper specialist at Forum Auctions
Why is the supply and range of Rembrandt prints so much greater than those of other Old Masters?
Rembrandt was a prolific printmaker producing in the region of 300 etchings between 1626 and his death.
The only other printmaker coveted by collectors in the same way, and with anywhere near as large an output, was Albrecht Dürer.
The sheer number of prints by Rembrandt combined with the variation in states is pretty much unparalleled. This is reflected in the complex nature and scale of the market for his prints.
How easy is it to determine when a Rembrandt print dates from and which state it belongs to?
An early impression of a lifetime state will stand in stark contrast to a later worn impression of the same print, so determining if the print is exceptional can be relatively straightforward.
But beyond making this distinction it does start to get a little more nuanced. As well as having different states of the same print, you can also have impressions of the same state printed at different dates; sometimes as much as 200 years apart!
Essentially, lifetime impressions are considerably more valuable due to being closer to Rembrandt’s original vision and intention, and the printing was likely overseen by the artist himself.
Rembrandt, as an insatiable collector himself, was wise to this marketing strategy of making numerous states of the same print. He was not only showing the development of an idea, but also fuelling the market. A serious collector will want all the states, particularly the rarest, and will pay accordingly.
What are the other key determinants of value?
Certain images are more desirable than others, both because of subject and scarcity, which impacts value even before you get to dating and various states. For instance, an intimate early self-portrait will inherently be more valuable than an esoteric scene from the New Testament. To a degree the earlier prints tend to have been printed in smaller limited runs (and typically the copper plates have been lost) while the series of smaller etchings given to friends and collectors known to the artist also tend to be more valuable due to scarcity.
Regardless, it is always important to consider the quality of the impression, whether there are effects and techniques within the print that have faded due to over-printing, accidental slips or unintended deviations from the earliest impressions.
There are also the usual issues of condition, whether the margins have been trimmed etc, and provenance. Certain historic print collectors are coveted above others, but luckily they tended to mark their prints with stamps and inscriptions that are easily identifiable.
Unless a print is particularly rare to the market with little auction precedent and very few copies in private hands, you’ll be able to determine the value relatively accurately.
How would you assess the state of demand currently?
For the finest examples priced at the right level there are always collectors willing to buy. It could be argued that to form an exceptional collection you would have to be pretty patient in the current market, with the supply of exceptional prints being somewhat more refined, but I imagine collectors in the middle part of the 20th century may have said the same.
What does seem to have changed now, however, is that there are several levels of buyer within the market working at different price points. You have new buyers who are interested in the object as an image and are less concerned with the connoisseurship, at least at first.
In our recent sale [March 17, when 24 Rembrandt lots were offered] we had around a dozen bidders, with private collectors from London, the US, Israel, Australia, and Poland all competing, but with the strongest bidding coming from the American trade.