I WAS ASTOUNDED recently when I walked into a local gallery and saw a trio of etchings by the 17th-century Dutch master Rembrandt Van Rijn for what seemed like peanuts prices.
I hasten to add that by "peanuts" I'm speaking in relative, not absolute, terms. Even at around $2,000 apiece, those lovely Rembrandts were way out of my price range.
Still, I had been accustomed to thinking of Rembrandt etchings as quarter-million-dollar commodities.
How come these were so cheap?
From Craig Flinner, the gallery owner, I learned that the etchings offered for sale were not made during Rembrandt's lifetime but rather were later impressions printed anywhere from 100 to 150 years after the master's death.
Because the printing process gradually erodes the clarity of etched images, later engravers had had to rework the original copper plates that Rembrandt made. These reworkings subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) changed Rembrandt's lines and altered the delicate interplay of light and shadow for which he was famous.
Etchings made during Rembrandt's lifetime and under his supervision indeed sell for between $200,000 and $300,000 today, Flinner said. Images from the same plates 50 years later sell for slightly less.
But for more recent printings, the price drops precipitously. Flinner says he has sold some 20th-century Rembrandt "restrikes" for as little as $400.
"A serious collector of Old Masters probably wouldn't want those impressions," he said.
"The people who buy them are mostly general collectors of old prints who want to say they have a Rembrandt in their collection."
Still, I have not completely abandoned my original feeling that I had found a bargain. Flinner's comments just made me think more deeply about what is called authenticity in art and how it is valued.
The Rembrandts in Flinner's gallery, for example, may be later impressions of the master's work, but they are supremely beautiful nevertheless.
Rembrandt was famous for deploying light and shade into finer and finer nuances. The resulting shimmering quality suggests the changing moods of his subjects. His great discovery, as one writer put it, was that "the motion of light through a space and across human features can express emotion, the changing states of the psyche."
By manipulating the direction, intensity and texture of light, Rembrandt was able to render the most subtle nuances of character and mood.
In the prints made during Rembrandt's lifetime, his technical virtuosity in the use of light is readily apparent. The dark areas seem to have a depth and weight that draw the viewer into the picture, while the lighter areas convey a magical transparency that borders on the spiritual.
Later prints or "strikes" may not have the subtlety of tonal range ++ or the crisp lines of the earliest ones. But clearly only Rembrandt could have conceived their overall design, and his vision informs every element of the picture. (Recently the Baltimore Museum of Art mounted a fascinating exhibition illustrating the differences among Rembrandt etchings printed during and after the artist's lifetime.)
Modern art criticism emphasizes connoisseurship, or expertise in matters relating to taste and discrimination. But earlier eras valued prints for a variety of reasons.
Before photography, people relied on prints to know how things looked. They were repositories of scientific, technical and historical knowledge as well as objects of aesthetic pleasure.
The 20th century has greatly narrowed the scope of print connoisseurship. This has sent prices soaring for a few great masters like Rembrandt and Albrecht Durer, while devaluing scores of lesser-known artists.
Yet today's connoisseurship risks falling into what writer Irvin Stock called "that pedantic affectation which makes a premature fuss over trifles." Even the great architect Walter Gropius once complained that "Aesthetic connoisseurship has generally displaced a creative conception of art."
Rembrandt's prints are beautiful for many reasons, not least of which are the intense humanity with which he renders his subjects and his uniquely personal vision of the Bible from the point of view of a believing Christian.
One need not be a connoisseur to appreciate his greatness in this respect, as attested to by the enthusiasm of collectors who continued to buy his prints long after the original plates had worn out.
No one would mistake a late 18th-century or early 19th-century restrike for a print made by Rembrandt's own hand. And yet the stupendous price difference between the two seems both arbitrary and misleading: A Rembrandt is a Rembrandt, after all, and $2,000 may well be a bargain for those who value the master's art.
Relatively speaking, that is. It's still way out of my price range.
Pub Date: 8/03/97