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The story of Rembrandt's etching plates
The etching plates by Rembrandt that still survive have passed through numerous hands over the centuries. A large number of them came into the possession of the Amsterdam publisher and printseller Clement de Jonghe (1624-77). No fewer than 74 plates are listed in his estate.
Many of these etching plates turn up in the 18th century in the estate of the Amsterdam merchant and collector Pieter de Haan (1723-66). After his death they were sold. Most of them went to engraver and Rembrandt connoisseur Claude-Henri Watelet (1718-86) in Paris.
Watelet reworked some of the plates with an etching or engraving technique in order to make new impressions from them. This happened much more often thereafter and people were not always very careful about it. They often added lines and sometimes even changed the composition.
After Watelet the plates were reworked and reprinted by their next owner, the printseller and publisher Pierre-François Basan (1723-97). In the 19th century they became the property of the French publisher Auguste Jean and after him of the engraver Auguste Bernard, both of whom brought out new impressions.
In 1906 the Paris collector Alvin-Beaumont bought the plates from Auguste Bernard's son. To mark the tercentenary of Rembrandt's birth Alvin-Beaumont made a small number of impressions of each plate, which he presented to various dignitaries and museums. Shortly after 1916 the plates were inked and lacquered in order to make further printing impossible.
After abortive negotiations with the Rijksmuseum and the British Museum, Alvin-Beaumont finally sold the etching plates in 1938 to the American collector Robert Lee Humber. He placed them on loan in the Raleigh Art Museum in North Carolina.
In 1993 the heirs of Lee Humber, who had died in the meantime, put the etching plates on the art market. The assemblage that had remained intact up to then was broken up, passing into the hands of museums, dealers and private individuals all over the world.
The Rembrandt House, the Rijksmuseum and the Amsterdams Historisch Museum have acquired some fine examples from this inheritance. Thus after over two hundred years some of Rembrandt's etching plates have finally returned to the Netherlands. Their acquisition was made possible by the aid of the Rembrandt Society, the Ministry of Welfare, Health and Cultural Affairs, the VSB Fund and the Society of Friends of the Rembrandt House.