Visual Arts Feature: Rembrandt, Rubens, the Beau Sancy, and the Jew

The history of the Beau Sancy took me back to the years around 1640, when it passed into and out of the orbit of the greatest Netherlandish artists of the day, the Dutchman Rembrandt and the Brabander Rubens.

By Gary Schwartz

Last week a fabled diamond, the 35-karat Beau Sancy, was sold at Sotheby’s in Geneva for 9,042,500 Swiss francs. (On the Sotheby’s page, click on “Catalogue notes and provenance.”) For various reasons, I did not consider making a bid. For one thing, we have no place in the house where the gem would be retrievable to us and us only. More than once in the past, diamonds we owned have been retrieved by others or have otherwise slipped from our grasp. It would be a pity if that were to happen to such a nice stone as the Beau Sancy.

My imagination was pricked by the sale for another reason. The history of the Beau Sancy took me back to the years around 1640, when it passed into and out of the orbit of the greatest Netherlandish artists of the day, the Dutchman Rembrandt (1606/07–1669) and the Brabander Rubens (1577–1640). The bearers were the Italian-French queen mother Maria de’ Medici (1575–1642), the German-Dutch prince of Orange, Stadholder Frederik Hendrik (1584–1647) and possibly the French-Spanish Jew Alfonso Lopéz (1572–1649).

In August 1638, the Netherlands was paid an embarrassing surprise visit by the exiled queen mother. She sneaked across the border from the Southern Netherlands and challenged the Republic to negotiate on her behalf with her enemy Richelieu to mend things between herself and her son Louis XIII. She was desperately low on cash. So much so that she sold her prize possession, the Beau Sancy, to Frederik Hendrik for 80,000 guilders, when a dealer kibitzing on the transaction said it was worth nearly twice that much.

What did Alfonso Lopéz have to do with this? There is nothing on record, but listen to these pieces of biographical information about him from the Historiettes of Gédéon Tallemant de Réaux (1619–92), concerning which “independent testimony has established the substantial correctness of his statements” (Wikipedia): “Il avoit chez lui un homme à qui il donnoit huit mille livres par an… Cet homme tailloit les diamants avec une diligence admirable, et avoit l’adresse de les fendre d’un coup de marteau quand il étoit nécessaire. Ensuite toutes les belles pierreries lui passèrent par les mains.” (He had a man in his service, at 8,000 livres a year, . . . who cut diamonds with admirable skill and was able to split them with a single hammer blow when this was required. Eventually all the beautiful stones passed through his hands.) . . . “La Reine lui devoit vingt mille écus pour des perles; et comme il pressoit d’Esmery pour être payé, l’autre lui donna en paiement une taxe d’aisé de soixante mille livres.” (The queen owed him 20,000 écus for pearls, and when he pressed [Superintendent] d’Esmery for payment, he was given a tax reduction of 60,000 livres. . .)

As for Lopéz’s relation to Frederik Hendrik at the time, he was dealing with the prince’s claim against the French crown of “50 or 60 thousand guilders,” in Frederik Hendrik’s sloppy phrase, while engaged in trade in arms, textiles, jewels, gems, and Asian artifacts on a world-class scale. This man being in the Republic—he lived there from 1636 to 1641—when the negotiations between the Dutch court and the entourage of Maria de’ Medici were being conducted concerning the Beau Sancy, it seems to me unlikely that he was not involved in some way.

Lopéz did not call himself a Jew, but everyone else did. Tallemant: “Je me crevois de rire, car mon père étoit son voisin, de le voir manger du pourceau quasi tous les jours. On ne l’en croyoit pas meilleur chrétien pour cela.” (I would collapse in laughter when my father, who lived next door to him, told me that Lopéz ate pork nearly every day. No one thought this made him a better Christian.) Putting the issue more bluntly: “Lopès vendoit un crucifix bien cher: ‘Hé, lui dit-on, vous avez livré l’original à si bon marché.’” (Lopez sold a crucifix for a high price. “Hey,” they said to him, “you supplied the original so cheaply.”)

Alfonso López was the owner of one of Rembrandt’s first paintings of a subject from the Jewish Bible, Bileam’s ass (1626), now in the Musée Cognacq-Jay in Paris. He also had contact with Rembrandt in the period of the diamond sale. Portraits from Lopéz’s collection—no less than Raphael’s Castiglione and Titian’s Ariosto; he operated at that level—helped Rembrandt define his own most glamorous self-image. The Night Watch—of this I am sure, even if some of my colleagues are not—is replete with references to Maria and her entry into Amsterdam.

When in 1640 Rembrandt painted the self-portrait now in the National Gallery, London, both Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (Paris, Louvre) and Titian’s so-called Portrait of Lodovico Ariosto (London, National Gallery) were in Amsterdam in the collection of Alfonso Lopéz. The Raphael was knocked down to Lopéz at an auction at which Rembrandt was present, as we known from his sketch and annotation (Vianna, Albertina).

The involvement of Rubens with Maria de Medici went much, much further. He was the author of the 21-piece series of monumental paintings (1622–24) defining her queenship, her marriage to Henri IV in 1602, and her destiny, painted for her Paris domain, the Palais de Luxembourg. Their ties were such that it was Rubens who arranged for Maria’s flight to the Southern and then to the Northern Netherlands. The reversal of fortunes of the patron and her client reached a symbolical climax when Maria, a destitute persona non grata, ended her days in the very house in Cologne where Rubens was born.

At the time, neither Rembrandt nor Rubens could have bought the Beau Sancy. But the posthumous increment in the worth of their art has far exceeded that of the diamond. The ratios are best expressed with reference to median incomes in 1640 and 2007, the last date available to me.

Beau Sancy
1640: 80,000 guilders (approx. 250 times the median income in the Netherlands, probably flattered at 300 guilders)
2007: 9,042,500 Swiss francs (approx. 360 times the median income in Switzerland, 25,266 Swiss francs)

Rembrandt and Rubens
1640: price for a top easel painting: 1500 guilders (approx. 5 times the median income in the Netherlands, 300 guilders)
2007: price for a top easel painting: $50,000,000 (at auction, the record for a Rubens stands at $76.2 million, Rembrandt at $33.2 million, approx. 2175 times the median income in 17 Western European countries, $22,986)

In other words, for the 80,000 guilders that Frederik Hendrik paid for the Beau Sancy in 1640, he could have bought 50 Rembrandts or Rubenses, which today would be worth 2.5 billion dollars, 277 times more than the present worth of the diamond.

But could he have? The Dutch court did everything it could to commission a painting from Rubens towards the end of the master’s life and did not succeed. Like the good woman in Proverbs, his work was more precious than gems. After 1640, Frederik Hendrik did buy two more Rembrandts, for which he paid 1,200 guilders apiece. However, even the increase in value of a good painting by a minor master, from 20 guilders in 1640 to $50,000 in 2007, would outdistance the record of one of the best diamonds in existence.

These figures should give pause to TEFAF visitors who think that they are better off sinking their millions into the goods of Graff and Harry Winston rather than those of Marlborough and Johnny van Haeften.

© Gary Schwartz 2012.

Gary Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1940. In 1965 he came to the Netherlands with a graduate fellowship in art history and stayed. He has been active as a translator, editor, and publisher; teacher, lecturer, and writer; and as the founder of CODART, an international network organization for curators of Dutch and Flemish art. As an art historian, he is best known for his books on Rembrandt: Rembrandt: all the etchings in true size (1977), Rembrandt, his life, his paintings: a new biography (1984) and The Rembrandt Book (2006).

His Internet column, now called the Schwartzlist, appeared every other week from September 1996 to April 2007 and has been appearing since then irregularly. His most recent book on Rembrandt is one of the six titles nominated for the Banister Fletcher Award for the most deserving book on art or architecture of that year.

In November 2009, Schwartz was awarded the coveted tri-annual Prize for the Humanities by the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation of Amsterdam.

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