The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
Fig. 4 / Sebastiano del
Piombo, Portrait of a
Humanist, ca. 1520, oil
on panel transfered to
hardboard, 134.7 x 101 cm,
Washington, DC, National
Gallery of Art.
Fig. 5 / Ludovico Carracci,
Madonna and Child with
Saints, 1607, oil on copper,
29.8 x 25.1 cm, New York,
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
According to his biographer, Lansdowne came to the
decision to sell The Mill in 1911 “to benefit his younger
children”.14 In reality, this painting had been unofficially
on the market for some time. In 1897 Bernard Berenson
had negotiated with Lansdowne at length, and in vain,
on behalf of Isabella Stuart Gardner; subsequently in
1905, whilst working as an advisor for P&D Colnaghi,
Berenson finally negotiated a purchase price for The Mill
of £40,000, however, by this stage Gardner was no longer
interested.15 Unpublished letters show that, in these years,
Colnaghi operated in the background for a joint deal
with other partners. In January 1906, Otto Gutekunst,
the expert director of Colnaghi, asked Charles Carstairs
of the American dealers Knoedler, “How would you like
to buy Lansdowne’s Rembrandt’s Mill with us? £30,000£35,000. I once offered him 25,000.”16 The deal, however,
perhaps in the absence of a buyer, was not sealed.
A real chance to sell The Mill occurred in February
1911 when the London art dealer Arthur J. Sulley
made Lansdowne a conspicuous offer on behalf of an
unnamed client, later to be revealed as the American
millionaire collector Widener.17 The offer of £100,000
was a record price at the time and, by comparison,
made previous records pale into insignificance: it was
more than double the price paid for Velazquez’s Rokeby
Venus in 1905 (£45,000) and nearly a third higher than
the cost of Hans Holbein’s Christina of Denmark in 1909
In both cases the National Gallery had succeeded in
purchasing the works, although the museum had had
to depend on public appeals and private donations,
and, in both cases, the required sum had been raised
only at the last minute.


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