on Sep 12, 2007
Change of pace:
My wife sometimes does research work for an antiques appraiser. When I saw how the business worked I was sort of surprised. I thought appraisers just, you know, knew everything about old stuff and how much it’s worth. It turns out that this is not the case, and often the job is more than half detective work.
My wife is stuck on one now. It’s a toughie. The client has a painting they believe to have been produced by “Astade, the teacher of Rembrandt.” The first problem is that history records no such person. More importantly, I don’t think that’s what the signature says. Take a look:
Keeping in mind that if the client is right, then this is a signature from someone in Holland in the sixteenth century. So, we’re dealing with a proper name. Sloppily wirtten. In another language. Over four hundred years ago.
Everyone is pretty comfortable with the idea that the first letter is “A”, and the last three are “ade”. But aside from that, we can’t be sure of much. That upward trailing line on the “A” may or may not be another letter. Next is what looks like an “o”. Next is a tall vertical line, which could be several different things. (In that time period the lowercase English “s” looked like a very tall curly “f”. Early documents from the founding of the US look like they say “The Prefident of the United Statef” to modern eyes.) After that is a “c” shape, although it’s very square and not likely to be a “c” unless the painter was going for that “OCR font” style. It could indeed be a “t” as the client seems to think. So, the signature could be “A?ostade”, but it can’t be “Astade”.
There are some places online where you can search databases of known signatures. Those are quite helpful (if a little pricey) but they don’t have a wildcard search, which is what she needed. (Something like “A*ade”.) Seems like a pretty obvious feature for an application like this. But then, the most obvious feature is always the one you need right now.
Sadly, the odds of this being produced by a “teacher of Rembrandt” are low. This is about the worst thing you can be asked to do as an appraiser, to let someone know that what they have is far less valuable than what they thought. Ideally, you want to let them know that that their dusty old things are long lost treasures. “Actually, this is Da Vinci’s wastepaper basket! It’s priceless!” During your worst day as an appraiser you’ll end up telling your client, “Actually, this was painted by Harold Van Gogh in Chicago in 1931. The guy made a million others just like it trying to feed his family during the great depression. It’s worth about twenty bucks.”
Still, it’s an interesting puzzle. I am curious to see if she’ll find out who made the painting, and when. You can read a bit more over at Heather’s site.
UPDATE: An hour after I posted this I came back and found someone in the comments had found the artist. A few posts later some other people offered even more evidence, and by the next morning we’d identified the artist, the name of the image (produced from an etching) and a bunch of other great info. Thanks so much to everyone who chimed in. What an interesting exercise.
I love the internet. It’s my favorite, uh… place.
UPDATED UPDATE: As to the question of how much it’s worth… I never found that out, and I imagine the exact figure is private, but based on what was said I would say we’re talking under ten thousand. One site suggested $3k for a picture produced from an etching in this time period, but the condition of the piece and the artist’s proximity to Rembrandt might impact that a bit. Still, we’re not talking about a million dollar painting here.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.