Here’s an interesting NY Times Magazine article by Russell Shorto about a Dutch art dealer named Jan Six who recently purchased two paintings that he claims are overlooked authentic Rembrandts, rather than lesser “circle of Rembrandt” works as they previously had been considered. One is of a Garth Algar-like “Portrait of a Young Gentleman.”
The experts seem to feel that there is a >50% chance this really is by Rembrandt, although it sort of looks to me like the kind of image a recent forger might paint, like how the famous Vermeer forger who duped Goring during the Nazi Occupation created 1940s-ish paintings that people in the 1940s thought were exactly what Vermeer would have painted, but which look silly today.
The first twist in the story:
Jan Six is a tall, slim, almost apologetically dapper man, whose customary expression contains a hint of someone carrying a burden. The burden turns out to be his name, which is actually Jan Six XI. Dating back four centuries, his aristocratic family has named a firstborn son Jan in nearly every generation. The first Jan Six … was actually a friend of the great Rembrandt van Rijn. When he decided, sometime in the 1650s, to have his portrait painted, he asked Rembrandt to do the honors. The result is one of the master’s most admired works, a wondrously brooding study of self-aware, middle-aged sophistication, done in the hallmark rough brush strokes of the later Rembrandt. The historian Simon Schama has called it “the greatest portrait of the 17th century.” … which currently holds an insurance valuation of more than $400 million …
As the Six Collection passed down from one generation to the next, it grew to include works by Vermeer, Bruegel, Hals and Rubens, as well as the odd Titian and Tintoretto. Along the way, a pirate’s horde of lesser but still historically significant artifacts became attached to it: furniture, gems, medals, manuscripts, closetsful of silver, Venetian glassware, ivory-handled toothbrushes, a diamond ring given to a family member by Czar Alexander I. … The collection now holds no fewer than 270 portraits of family members.
As the centuries rolled on and other great European family art holdings were broken up and museums became the principal repositories for such things, the Six Collection, which remains in the Six family home, grew in mystique. By tradition, each generation’s Jan Six becomes the caretaker of the collection and the occupant of the house, for the last century a rambling, 56-room mansion on the Amstel River in the heart of Amsterdam. But Jan XI, the art dealer, is not that Jan, not yet anyway. His father, Jan X — or, as he prefers to be called, Baron J. Six van Hillegom — still reigns. …
The Six family might be a good example of French economist Thomas Piketty’s theory that there is far more semi-hidden Old Money than is reported in Forbes magazine lists of rich people, which Piketty argues are biased toward entrepreneurs. I don’t see the Sixes listed by Forbes as billionaires, but just Rembrandt’s portrait of Jan Six alone gets them 40% of the way there.
On the other hand, Jan Six X doesn’t exactly own the mansion he lives in with the $400 million Rembrandt portrait of his ancestor on the wall:
The elder Six may be known for his contentiousness, but regarding his most public battle, a multiyear lawsuit against the Dutch government for failing to live up to an agreement to pay for maintenance of the house, some people say he had a point. “A left-wing politician thought it was ridiculous to give money to a family that’s rich, and so he stopped the subsidy,” said Frits Duparc, former director of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, who served as mediator in the dispute. “But the fact is, the family isn’t so rich because the art was long ago put into a foundation.” The foundation was created in part to keep the art together, and thus in the country. In the past the family had been forced to sell Vermeers and other national treasures in order to pay tax bills.
Eventually, in 2008, the lawsuit was settled and an agreement reached: A foundation owns the Six mansion, the family has a right to live in it in perpetuity and the state provides funds for its upkeep. In exchange, the Sixes are to provide limited public access to the collection.
You can take a free one hour tour of the Six house and collection, but it’s booked up through 2019.
A 2010 article Fox News article says:
The Six family has been haggling with Dutch governments for more than 100 years over access to the Netherlands’ most valued private art collection, which many deem to be a national heritage.
Hounded by death duties with the passing of each generation, Jan Six VII created a foundation in 1901 to officially take ownership of the collection, thus avoiding punishing inheritance tax.
Since at least 1957, the family has been getting a state subsidy, but the current patriarch (“Ten”) has gone to court several times over the level of support for the artworks and the house.
As part of the latest deal worth hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars) a year in maintenance and security costs, he has pledged to exhibit the portrait of his ancestor more often. …
Although technically the collection no longer belongs to the family, Ten is the only member of the foundation’s board with sole discretion on how the collection is maintained.
Not so shabby …
The family fortune was founded in the textile trade by the original Jan Six’s parents, Jean Six and Anna Six-Wymer. His mother was widowed young, but became a business tycoon in her own right with a monopoly on the import of indigo dye, said “Ten” in an interview in one renovated room of his home. Wymer invested her profits in Amsterdam real estate, which provided rental income to her descendants.
On the other hand, old money has a tendency over the generations to dispense with the dull, grubby work of making money and instead concentrate on the more refined pleasures such as spending money, which in the Six family goes back eleven generations to Jan Six I and his portrait:
Rembrandt’s friend Jan Six left the management of the family business to his brother while he focused on writing and buying art …
Coming back to Piketty’s argument that the rich naturally get richer than the rest, my impression of rich old families is that in the long run, they tend to spend more than they make, often on upkeep of the family manse.
On the other hand, the glamour of a great name can bring in lots of money through prudent marriages.
— beginning a collection that would be expanded over the centuries by gainful marriages. …
For example, John and Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz in The Favourite) were minor aristocrats who became favorite courtiers of the future King James II and Queen Anne, respectively. They went on to play successful historic roles in English and European politics, including the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the War of the Spanish Succession with King Louis XIV of France, for which they were made Duke and Duchess of Marlborough.
On the other hand they were considered rather poor arrivistes by ducal status, while their ambitions were vast, building the 300,000 square foot Blenheim Palace. And eventually Sarah fell from favor with the Queen, toppling her husband as well.
But Sarah arranged such favorable marriages for her daughters, such as with the famous Spencer family, that the Spencer-Churchill lineage prospered, usually through adroit marriages. For instance, a lucrative marriage to Consuelo Vanderbilt in the late 19th century paid for a new roof for Blenheim.
In this century two Best Actress and one Best Actor Oscars have been awarded for performances in movies involving this clan: Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite, Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (which begins with Princess Diana Spencer Windsor’s death in a car accident), and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
In the 21st Century, the rich don’t seem to spend proportionately as much on vast houses and other personal luxuries as did European aristocrats. Some still like to spend imaginatively, such as Oracle’s Larry Ellison. (Here’s a 2006 article about how his accountant had repeatedly warned him about his over-spending. But, in case you are worried about him, last I checked, Larry seems to be doing fine.)
A reader once contributed in the comments some observations on Bill Gates’ lifestyle garnered from running into the plutocrat in downtown Rancho Santa Fe, CA, near where he owns a winter home.
On the street, Gates doesn’t dress like the man on the Monopoly box, he basically looks like all the other polo shirt-wearing upper upper middle class guys dropping into Starbucks. My reader pointed out that Gates’ polo shirts, however, weren’t $16.99 ones from Costco, they were the finest brand sold by the best boutique in the nicest town in North San Diego County. Similarly, his glasses were the best frames from the most expensive eye doctor. (By the way, about five years ago, after a lifetime of fiddling with eyeglass frames that start self-destructing after a few months, I splurged for the best eyeglass frames at my Costco, Italian-made titanium YSL frames. They’ve made my life better because they are extraordinarily durable: in a half-decade, I haven’t even had to find one of those tiny screwdrivers to tighten the screws.)
Bill Gates famously intends to give away vast amounts of money through his Gates Foundation. I suspect, like the Six family, that his descendants will have pretty nice lives presiding over this vast foundation.