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AMICO Assignment Set:
Instructor's Guide: Case Study Exercise in Old Master Prints

Instructor's Guide:

This exercise is designed to be used in an advanced class or seminar in the history of Western prints. With appropriate preparation, however, it could also be used in a class in museum studies, curatorial studies, or even printmaking.

There are no right answers here. Like most case study exercises, this one designed to test how students apply what they have learned in class to a problem based on a "real world" situation.

You may wish to prepare your students to treat this primarily as a connoisseurship exercise, as a practical exercise in curatorial priority-making or museum organizational behavior, a study of art market prices, or (by changing the curator's role into a acquisitions committee) make it into an exercise in group decision-making.

Good questions students might raise include: How much of our scarce acquisition funds should we risk? How can we tell if their previous owners legitimately acquired these prints? In making purchases, should we focus on strengths or weaknesses of our collection? Are the prints correctly attributed and how can we tell if they are or are not? What is a fair market price for these lots?

This exercise might be linked with a study session examining original prints, highlighting the differences between what can be learned from an original vs. a photograph. You may also wish to provide standard research material - including auction sale catalogues and appropriate print catalogues raisonné - on your reserve list to give students hints on how to proceed. Most, though not all, of the prints in the exercise are "played by" images in the AMICO Library. Thus the originals (listed below for your reference) can also be researched using the AMICO database.

The fictional McConnell & Sons Auction Galleries is a small to medium house, typical of the vast majority of auction houses in the United States. The last page of the catalogue gives various clues to its nature: it specializes in estate auctions of antiques and general household furnishings of many kinds. It is unlikely to have the staff of highly trained experts found in large, international auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's.

The sale is also an "estate sale" including antique furniture, silver, china, and jewelry as well as art. The art included may well have been purchased decades ago, when market prices were much lower, and the former owners insurance assessments may be years out of date. In the hundreds of items sold at such a sale, owners, auctioneers, and purchasers alike can easily overlook treasures.

Small auction houses tend rely heavily on owner's descriptions and attributions handed down with the object and rarely have time to examine and appraise each lot in detail. All auction catalogues are subject to errors and omissions, but catalogues from small houses are typically less complete and more likely to contain misattributions. This makes purchases from small houses riskier but it also means that sales at small houses may contain hidden treasures that the cataloguers have missed. If other bidders also overlook them at the sale, they can be real bargains.

A useful lesson to draw from this exercise is that, despite their staff experts and glittery reputations, the sales of even the high-profile auction houses pose some risks to the purchaser. Misattributed, fraudulent, and even stolen goods can work their way onto the auction floor as well as into the wares of art dealers and museum and private collections. Though auctions often offer lower prices than dealers, they also allow less time for research and may offer less protection for the buyer. A good caveat to include in any response to the is exercise is "let the buyer beware."

Lot 22.Rembrandt, The Three Crosses

This is a good impression of a great and famous Rembrandt print and would make a fine addition to any collection of Old Master prints. Decades ago, when its previous owners perhaps acquired this print, it might have sold for a few hundred dollars.† At current market prices, however, it would go for well into five figures and could absorb a great deal of the available print acquisition funds. The print raises a classic curatorial question: is a major acquisition worth forgoing other priorities?

Original: Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, The Three Crosses. Etching, 4th state. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, P19573. AMICO ID: BMFA.P19573.

Lot 23. Rembrandt, Landscape, ca. 1640

Another famous Rembrandt etching, better known under the title The Three Trees. The catalogue description, however, mentions some damage, which should be examined carefully before bidding. The Auction House "Conditions and Terms of Sale" include an "as is" clause, which means the print cannot be returned if it proves to be badly damaged. The lot presents another classic curatorial dilemma: is it best to buy a few examples in the best condition or compromise on condition to acquire more.

Original: Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn, The Three Trees, 1643. Etching. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with County Funds, 58.31. AMICO ID: LACM 58.31.

Lot 24. Rembrandt, Landscape

This is not an original Rembrandt print, but a "heliogravure" of his etching, View of Omal (1645). The heliogravure, a photographic process, can create a copy print very much like an original etching, including the familiar "raised lines" used to distinguish intaglio prints from other media. Heliogravure editions of famous etchings were made by several art museums in the early 20th century. These copies are usually well marked as reproductions, but the prints themselves, which often now look "old," are otherwise difficult for non-experts to tell from the originals. Detecting them from a photograph or catalogue image is virtually impossible.

Reproductions mislabeled as originals can crop up in almost any auction or gallery. Unlike some houses, McConnell & Sons does not offer any guarantees on its lots, so any one making bids on this or the other Old Master lots should examine them very carefully, especially when committing large sums of money.

Original: After Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, View of Omal (19th-or 20th-century copy), 1645 (original). Heliogravure. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, California. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, 1963.30.15507. AMICO ID: FASF.10596.

Lot 25. Dutch School, Three Prints by Various Artists

If there was any doubt about it before, this lot should prove that McConnell & Sons does not have staff experts in Old Master prints. The Gallery's description of this lot contains several serious errors, but that does not mean it isn't a good candidate for acquisition.

The "Dutch print" in the upper right is neither a print nor Dutch. In fact, it is an important original drawing by Millet, a conté crayon study for "Man with a Wheelbarrow." Especially from a photograph, a non-expert might mistake the medium for lithograph and the subject matter (anachronistic in a lithograph) for a 17th-century Dutch genre scene. A good curator, however, might well find this a useful addition to the museum's collection of French art.

The print in the upper left is an etching by the Dutch 17th-century landscape painter Allart van Everdingen. The "print" in the lower right is, in fact, a pen and ink drawing by one of Rembrandt's most important and prolific students, Ferdinand Bol. In the lower left is an etching by Rembrandt himself.

All of these works are of considerably more merit than the catalogue suggests, making this a possible "bargain lot" if no one catches the Gallery's misattributions.

Originals, clockwise from upper left: Allart van Everdingen, The Thicket. Etching. Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, 223046. AMICO ID: DMCC.1962.16.2; Jean-FranÁois Millet, Study for Man with Wheelbarrow. Black conté crayon on wove paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Martin Brimmer, 76.442. AMICO ID: BMAF.76.442; Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Bald Old Man with a Short Beard, in Profile Right, ca. 1635. Etching, 1st state. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Katherine E. Bullard Fund in Memory of Francis Bullard, 1970.318. AMICO ID: BMFA.1970.318 ; Ferdinand Bol, The Return of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1640. Pen and brown ink on laid paper. Elizabeth Ebert and Arthur W. Barney Fund, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1977.2.6. AMICO ID: FASF.60382 .

Lot 26. Rembrandt, School of, Two Prints

The gallery is stretching a point to classify these prints as "School of Rembrandt" since this lot actually has less to do with that master than Lot 25. They are, however, both original prints by significant, and characteristic, Dutch 17th-century artists. They should sell for a reasonable price and would be useful additions to a teaching collection for 17th-century Dutch art.

Originals, top: Adrian Ostade, The Dance, 1652. Etching. Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, 223051. AMICO ID: DMCC.1979.74; bottom: Cornelis Dusart, The Large, 1685. Etching. Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, 223042. DMCC.1987.6.

Lot 28. Degas, Edgar, Two Female Figures, One with Book

Here the attribution is right, but both the title and the medium are off.† This is, in fact, a well known Degas print- Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery, 1879-80 in a fine impression. But the medium is not lithograph, but softground etching, with drypoint, aquatint, and etching. The unusual technique, Impressionist composition, and subject matter- recalling Degas' friendship and print collaborations with Cassatt-† might make this valuable (and probably pricey) print a good addition to the museum's French prints. But the lot raises yet another common curatorial dilemma: to build on an existing strength (French prints) or to use scarce acquisition money to fill gaps (Dutch prints)?

Original: Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery, 1879-80. Softground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching. Katherine E. Bullard Fund in Memory of Francis Bullard and proceeds from sale of duplicate prints, 1983.310. AMICO ID: BMFA 1983.310.

Lot 29. French School, Three Prints

Once again, McConnell gets things almost- though not quite- right here. Two of these prints are French, but one of them (the Callot, of a typical Commedia del Arte subject, in the lower half of the catalogue page) is 17th century. The print in the upper right is by the eccentric 19th-century etcher Charles Meryon. Although he is still not quite a household word, Meryon's work has attracted more attention in recent years and his prices have risen accordingly. The remaining print is an unknown work, probably 19th century and possibly French, purchased at a real auction. One again, this might make a good addition to the museum's French collection if purchased a reasonable.

Originals, clockwise from top left: French (?), 19th century. Etching. Private Collection (not in AMICO Library); Charles Meryon, La Morgue, Paris from Eaux-forts sur Paris. Etching on Japanese paper. Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of Touche Ross, 1980, 80/25. AMICO ID: AGO_.80/26. Jacques Callot, Les Deux Pantalons. Etching, laid paper. Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of the Trier-Fodor Foundation, 1983, 83/251. AMICO ID: AGO_.83/251.

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