For almost 50 years it had languished in a box at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- carefully stored, not ignored, but thought of secondary importance among the museum's 250 Rembrandt prints: a counterproof of the first state of an etching titled "Jan Uytenbogaert, Receiver-General ('The Gold-Weigher')" (1639).
Interesting to have, especially since the collection also includes two impressions of the final state -- or stage of development -- of the same print; but not really worth exhibiting.
Then, about two months ago, when he was preparing the exhibit "Rembrandt: The Museum's Collection," which opens Tuesday, Jay M. Fisher, BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs, invited his counterpart at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Rembrandt scholar Clifford Ackley, down to Baltimore to look at the collection.
When the counterproof came up for inspection, Mr. Ackley bent over it, magnifying glass in hand.
Then he said to Mr. Fisher, "You do realize what that is." And Mr. Fisher, too, looked at it through a magnifying glass. And he, too, knew what it was.
BMA director Arnold Lehman, when he heard about it, called it "among the most important and certainly the least expensive acquisition we've ever made."
For on the counterproof, Rembrandt had drawn in the face of the gold-weigher -- up to that point incomplete in the print -- with his own hand.
Now, a Rembrandt print is an important work of art, especially if printed by Rembrandt himself in his own lifetime, and not by somebody else after his death. But there are multiple impressions of prints. A drawing is a unique work of art, and the museum had never owned a Rembrandt drawing.
Or rather, it had never known it owned a Rembrandt drawing.
There was no doubt that it was by the artist. Mr. Ackley "immediately recognized it as a drawing and as being by Rembrandt," says Mr. Fisher.
Mr. Fisher is an expert in 19th century French art, not Rembrandt, but he has spent his life with prints and drawings and to him, too, the authenticity of the hand is apparent. "One look at it and even if you're not a Rembrandt expert you know what it is. There's something about the eyes." And indeed the eyes of the drawing, though mere dots, make the face live -- make the viewer feel there's somebody in there.
There's a negative reason for the drawing's authenticity, too. "It's a great enough drawing to be a Rembrandt and too slight to be by a forger," Mr. Fisher says. In other words, if a forger wanted to fake a Rembrandt drawing, he would fake something more important than some lines on the counterproof of a print.
And Mr. Ackley adds that the eyes in the drawing are "different from the final version. If it were an almost identical copy of the final head one would be more suspicious."
For good measure Mr. Fisher had another Rembrandt scholar, William Robinson, curator of drawings at Harvard's Fogg Museum, look at it. "Everyone agreed that's what it was," Mr. Fisher says.
It's logical that the artist should draw on a counterproof, for it is a working object made to help the artist create his print. A counterproof is a proof of a proof -- the artist takes an impression from the plate and while it is still wet puts another piece of paper over it and runs it through the press, creating a counterproof. Since the original proof is the mirror image of the plate, the counterproof is the mirror image of a mirror image, so that the image is aligned the same way it is on the plate. The artist can draw on the counterproof and work from that to the plate without having to reverse the image.
Nevertheless, a drawing on a Rembrandt counterproof is extremely rare. "There are 25 to 30 counterproofs of Rembrandt prints," says Mr. Fisher, "most of them in the British Museum or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam." But, Mr. Ackley says, "Based on a quick check, there seems to be one other working counterproof that had been drawn over as part of the process, although there are other impressions [not counterproofs] that had been drawn over."
The odd thing is that the former owner of the work wrote on the back of the BMA's counterproof exactly what it was. The proof is one of the more than 20,000 old master prints in the collection amassed by T. Harrison Garrett in the 1880s and given to the museum by his children in 1942.
Written on the back of the sheet is: "A counterproof before the Face was finished, markt [sic] in with pencil and slight shadow of Indian ink, very rare, perhaps unique. T.H.G." (Actually the drawn part is in black chalk.)
So why did a succession of BMA curators never notice what it was?
With about 95,000 prints and drawings, the BMA has one of the largest collections in the United States. Each curator studies part of the collection, but no curator can study all of it. Every BMA curator from the late Adelyn Breeskin down to Mr. Fisher has been an expert in one or another field of art history, but none has specialized in Rembrandt. And the museum's Rembrandt holdings are so strong that this print did not stand out.