Two Rembrandt Paintings Receive Dual Citizenship

Rembrandt's "Portrait of Oopjen Coppit" will be shared along with another portrait between France and the Netherlands after the two countries agreed to a joint purchase of the paintings. Wikimedia Commons

What's to be done when two countries both want to purchase the same works of art for their top museums? In the case of Rembrandt's Portrait of Marten Soolmans and Portrait of Oopjen Coppit, the countries in question—France and the Netherlands—will see how sharing works out. The countries will split the cost of moving and installing, and they will have combined ownership, each exhibiting the portraits for six months of the year. The decision was finalized in late September during a meeting between Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and French President François Hollande at the United Nations.

The paintings were owned by legendary French family the Rothschilds since 1877. When they announced that they would be selling them in 2013, Dutch officials wanted both paintings to once again belong to their nation, but the government could not afford the asking price of 160 million euros (about $182 million). Though some felt that the funds could be better used elsewhere, many in the Dutch parliament worried that if the paintings were not secured, they could be lost to another country in a bidding war.

At the same time, France was trying to raise 80 million euros (about $91 million) to purchase one of the portraits for the Louvre. It seemed only right, France argued, that after living with an esteemed French family for so long, one of the portraits should stay in the country. After some heated behind-the-scenes arguments, both countries decided that while it was beneficial to split the price, it just wouldn't do to separate the portraits.

The agreement, as outlined in a letter to the Dutch parliament from Dutch Culture Minister Jet Bussemaker, will have the pair exhibited for half the year at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the other half at the Louvre in Paris.

According to art historian and Rembrandt scholar Gary Schwartz, owning the portraits is a matter of national prestige for both countries. "When the paintings were sold by a Dutch family to Gustave de Rothschild in 1877, the same kind of discussion took place in the Netherlands as we see now in France," Schwartz tells Newsweek. "The Dutch owners were accused of irresponsibility for selling works of art that belonged in the country to buyers abroad." The fact that two countries will now own the paintings would most likely not have sat well with their former Dutch owners.

The paintings are significant to Rembrandt's overall body of work, as they're the only full-size standing portraits the artist ever painted. Full-size portraiture became popular with the nobility during 16th century in Europe. While the subjects in the portraits were not actually royalty, they had the means to commission Rembrandt to portray them as privileged citizens. Schwartz notes "that a young Dutch couple who, by European standards, were mere commoners would have themselves painted this way is a dramatic demonstration of the status the Dutch claimed on the basis of mere wealth." The portraits were the most expensive commission Rembrandt ever received and Schwartz, who has written about the relationship between the artist and his patrons, noted that the married couple and their brother-in-law, Martin van den Broeck, were Rembrandt's steadiest customers during his early years in Amsterdam. It's clear from the portraits that the artist took care to portray the couple with the prestige they obviously desired.

The portraits have always been privately owned, so they've rarely been publicly exhibited, making them even more alluring to museums. They've also always been kept as a pair, and rightly so. Schwartz believes that showing the husband and wife portraits separately would do them a disservice, as the paintings "work so much better in scale and pose and dress as a pair than alone." The Rijkmuseum and the Louvre will exhibit the portraits together.

While there are inherent risks in having to transport the large paintings between museums twice a year, Schwartz noted that this will also have a positive impact, as the art's quality will have to be assessed more frequently. The dual-ownership model is a unique solution for these Rembrandts, though it remains to be seen if it's a model that will be adopted by other museums going forward.