Rembrandt and the curator detective

We went looking for the origin of the works attributed to Rembrandt that are now on display at the Museum of the Dionísio Pinheiro Foundation, in Águeda, a small town in the center of the country. Besides the testimonies of a few experts who assure us they are copies, there are many flaws and just as many errors in the story told by the Museum’s curator about the path those 282 pieces traveled before getting to Dionísio Pinheiro. Meanwhile, the State Secretary of Culture has set in motion an evaluation of the assets.

Rita Ferreira

Translation by Paulo Montes

October 2014

The door isn’t closed and behind the desk at the entrance to the building of the Dionísio Pinheiro and Alice Cardoso Pinheiro Foundation there’s a cleaning lady. She’s the one who sends for António José, the right arm man of Miguel Vieira Duque, the Museum’s curator.

At the center of the main floor there’s a shop, with window panes revealing the many rooms filled with paintings, furniture, stoneware, statues, carpets and a big piano. The Rembrandt pieces are no longer there, they’ve been moved downstairs and can be visited freely.

Miguel Vieira Duque exits the room in a rush and turns right, apparently without seeing who’s waiting for him. He slides his hand over the olive green velvet of a sofa that goes together with two wooden backrest chairs. He slaps the seat twice and shouts: ‘You have to dust these chairs. How many times do I have to tell you? Twenty?’ And he disappears once again. The velvet appears to be clean.

Miguel Vieira Duque is busy organizing the exhibit that in a few days will signal the Museum’s 29th birthday. And it’s his exhibit. It’s his because he’s the one organizing it. It’s his because the pieces that will be exhibited are part of his personal collection. It’s his because the guests, at the same time as they admire the paintings, will be able to drink his six favorite infusions. Vieira Duque will address the visitors in the Dialogues with the curator.

Almost twenty minutes go by before you capture the attention of the omnipresent curator. We go down to the floor below where the cafeteria is located. He offers a coffee and sits at a table with four plastic placeholders. He raises his voice once again, restless: Paula! Come here…’ And he points silently at one of the rectangles, showing signs of breadcrumbs. Almost at the same time he orders to start ‘spinning’ the film Nightwatching, by Peter Greenaway – a film that tells the story of Rembrandt’s life, on a TV set atop a table filled with books and documents relative to the exhibit located in the cafeteria. This is the showing that has been the subject of controversy after controversy: “Engravings by Rembrandt (1606-1669), the etcher, in the colection of the Dionísio Pinheiro and Alice Cardoso Pinheiro Foundation.” On the Foundation’s website, the title that precedes the poster for the event is even grander: “The Biggest Collection of Engravings by Rembrandt in the World.”

Miguel Vieira Duque hesitates at giving an interview. Too much information has come out on the press about these assets, there’s been much talking about his life and he doesn’t like that. So much so that the only two news stories on the website, part of promoting the exhibit, are from the newspapers Diário de Coimbra and Diário de Aveiro, and talk of a collection of ‘unfathomable value’. Everything that came out on the press after that is not there.

The curator still doesn’t want to discuss that mater and he prefers showing the Museum. He starts by the cafeteria, showing the pastries and cookies inspired on the most emblematic pieces the Foundation possesses. The chocolate cake representing “A Minhota”, a painting by António Carneiro, the “Herodias e Salomé” cookies, inspired on the allegory of Vieira Portuense “A Cabeça de São João Baptista” that, according to the label, are a “swooping passion”, or to die for, if you need a more direct reference… Vieira Duque asks for three packs of biscuits to offer, placing them in a paper bag with the Foundations sticker on it. Before handing it over, he notices something wrong. The cookies for The Virgin’s Wedding, made of white chocolate and orange blossom, are attributed to Bonard… António José, sitting next to the curator, is looked at sideways. ‘Scratch that, it’s wrong. The Limoges enamel was done by Mercé,’ says Vieira Duque. António José obeys and, with a blue pen, immediately corrects the label.

The visit continues. The museum has three floors of a collection explained by heart by Vieira Duque, at a speed that is difficult to follow. He goes up the stairs and down the stairs, he explains that he’s changed everything since he’s arrived, that the inventory was wrong sometimes, that two thirds of the pieces now exhibited were kept in a safe, whose key he guards with his life. And he starts explaining going along the walls and pointing at the pieces: this one was, this one wasn’t, these two were, these weren’t, everything at a mind blowing speed. It’s half past noon and António José shows up to tell him he should have lunch. He has other engagements in the afternoon.

The conversation about Rembrandt is scheduled for next morning. Mr. João is still taking care of the grass in the gardens. The hedges are carefully trimmed, the terrace with pillows is waiting for summer days without rain, like this one, to have occupants.

‘Who’s real? Me or my parents?’

©osomeafuriaThere are 282 pieces at the center of the controversy. Based on themes from the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt, are they actually engravings (that is, made from the original plate that the author himself engraved) or are they reproductions of those engravings? In face of the controversy that developed in the media, the Direction of Cultural Patrimony has opened and enquiry and, according to an email from the State Secretary of Culture (SEC), from July 11th, it has ‘internally activated the necessary methodological procedures to move forward with the study and evaluation of the pieces in question, articulating with the National Museum of Ancient Art and the José de Figueiredo Laboratory.’ The SEC also says ‘The Dionísio Pinheiro and Alice Cardoso Pinheiro Foundation will soon be contacted by the Direction of Cultural patrimony so that the evaluation of the pieces can begin’.

Miguel Vieira Duque was still waiting for SEC to contact him regarding the promised evaluation. ‘That would be excellent’, he states, as long as the ‘usual covenants’ are respected. He makes it clear, ‘It’s our tutelage, this is a private collection’. The curator says he took some pieces to be analyzed by ‘museums and academic institutions’, but he wouldn’t reveal which ones. He only says that, from the persons who had contact with ‘the engravings, documental, [physical] contact’, there was no ‘concrete evaluation’, but ‘there was an approach to the collection and it was clearly stated that it was of great importance’.

But if Miguel Vieira Duque heard this from anyone, it wasn’t from Alexandra Markl, in charge of the engravings department at the National Museum of Ancient Art. The expert says these are copies, although of ‘the highest quality’, just as they were made at the time. To realize that, she only had to look at what Vieira Duque showed her. ‘Firstly, the paper is too thick, no one engraves on that kind of paper. Besides, the five or six I saw were standardized. And the edge you see is embossed with a press, over the engraving, to mimic it. The paper is from 1881, 1882. At the time, in the 19th century, they made heliographic reproductions of engravings, mimicking the originals, to sell. Then, some of them have the stamp from the Bibliothèque Royal [French], which shows us they can’t be original, or else they’d have to have been… stolen? In fact, in the 19th century, the royal libraries started having these series. We can say, very crudely, that they were the equivalent to the posters museums sell today, but they were replicas of great quality and, although being replicas, they were very expensive. There were no books on art pieces, so this was a way of enjoying Rembrandt’s art’, she explains.

Miguel Vieira Duque keeps insisting on the idea that a precise evaluation should be made on the quality, originality and value of those assets, discovered in 1985 and subject of and exhibit in 1989 by the then curator Madalena Cardoso da Costa, current director of Aveiro Museum. After taking them out of the drawer where they lay wrapped in paper, he did an inventory and attempted, by various means, to understand what he had found. He published the result of that investigation in 2007, on the Munda magazine, belonging to the Center’s Archaelogy and Art Group. He concluded they were ‘photographic and/or heliographic reproductions’. The same was attested by the photography and engraving director at the Paris National Library, Gisèle Lambert, who was quoted in the article, saying: ‘Most of these engravings are reproductions of engravings done by Rembrandt in the 18th and 19th centuries, and many of the respective originals are at the Paris National Library, where they’ve been photographed and reproduced by traders in this area’.

Vieira Duque doesn’t even want to hear about this article. He says it loses merit on the first paragraph where it mentions ‘around 350’ engravings, since they are exactly 282. And he insists: ‘The engravings were made from Rembrandt’s original plates. This could be the first or the one thousandth one! It’s the same thing as asking: who’s for real, me or my parents? Is it the engraving or the plate?’

The soap opera

While there aren’t any developments from SEC, Miguel Vieira Duque presents other trumps that value the Foundation’s assets. To do that, on the table under the TV set at the Museum’s cafeteria, there are copies of documents that the curator claims are proof of the origin of such a valuable collection acquired by Dionísio Pinheiro.

The first piece of evidence is the catalogue from an art auction held in 1921 that marketed the collection of artworks belonging to the Count of Ameal. The curator says this is the origin of the collection bought by Dionísio Pinheiro. Vieira Duque picks up the hardcover book – found at an antique bookstore – and starts turning the pages. ‘When I found the name Ameal I bought this catalogue and I understood right away. This is the curator’s job, the job of an investigator or a detective,’ he says, opening wide his now shiny eyes. ‘This catalogue mentions the collection of engravings by Rembrandt. It doesn’t specify the engravings, it says there’s a set of hundreds of engravings and it explains they weren’t sold separately because the quantity gave them value.’

There’s a copy of this auction’s catalogue at the Library of the National Museum of Ancient Art, in Lisbon, entitled “Vente D’Objects D’Art. Collections ‘Comte de Ameal’. Catalogue Descriptif”. The introduction is written in French and Portuguese and it confirms Vieira Duque’s information on the auction’s date and location – it was in July 1921, at the College of São Tomás, in Coimbra.

Seeing the 2019 entries, each one belonging to one of the pieces, only two make reference to Rembrandt. On page 33, article 397 is an etching attributed to Rembrandt, with the following dimensions: 14 cm height by 10 cm wide. It doesn’t have a title and it doesn’t belong to any one of the images selected to appear at the end of the catalogue. On page 35, entry 443 refers to a ‘Dessin au Crayon’ (pencil drawing) whose title is “Tête d’homme” (man’s head) and it’s attributed to Rembrandt, with some reservations (there’s a question mark between brackets next to the painter’s name).

The following is mentioned at the end of the catalogue: ‘Besides the pieces described in this catalogue, we’ll also market a few hundred objects grouped in various lots of furniture, paintings, drawings, stoneware, decoration objects and many other interior embellishments.’ There’s no mention to any engravings or to Rembrandt, who the catalogue makes a point of stressing out with a small drawing on the corner of the page where his only engraving that’s considered an original is put up for sale.

Vieira Duque continues with his story. As this lot of engravings wasn’t sold at the Count of Ameal auction – ‘perhaps due to its high price’ – the collection was lent to Luís Reis Santos, who, in 1948, exposed the set in a showing that took place at the National Bureau of Intelligence, in Lisbon. And he presents a second piece of evidence: the catalogue from the exhibit, a document from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. ‘This exhibit even contains the photograph of one of our engravings, The Faust.’ He grabs the catalogue and goes through the pages. ‘This is it. The Faust, Rembrandt 1606-1669. Figure 8.’ We go to figure 8. There’s the dimensions which are the same, and then there’s indication that it’s a third state engraving [that means the original plate has been touched up three times], and that also corresponds.’

Seeing a simple figure, the question is obvious: how does he know the figure is from the engraving he has at the museum? Vieira Duque makes a brief pause. And he replies: ‘Because the curator speaks about this engraving in the introduction. He says he used several collections and he used the one belonging to Count of Ameal to have Rembrandt in Portugal. He also says this collection was for sale and he was going to save the last three days of the exhibit to invite Portuguese collectors interested in acquiring it. Dionísio Pinheiro was invited and he was at the exhibit in 1948 with professor Luís Reis Santos.’

After consulting the document in question at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, you quickly come to the conclusion that there is no reference to Count of Ameal’s collection. In the introduction signed by Luís Reis Santos, three things are explained contradicting Vieira Duque. The first one is about the origin of the exhibited pieces and their value: ‘Composed of duplicated articles and others of a quality different from the remarkable foreign collection to which it belongs, this valuable main core (…) still includes many pieces worthy of being in collections organized with good taste and competence.’ The second one states that this was a showing exclusively for buyers: ‘Seeing the economic conditions of the country where they come from, where the export of art works is authorized only upon previous payment of their value in foreign currency, an exhibit of this nature can only be promoted if it’s destined for sale.’ It goes even further, saying that none of the pieces is of great monetary value: ‘Naturally, since our fine arts lovers and collectors aren’t really familiar with the exhibited pieces, these engravings don’t possess a really high value: overall, there aren’t any really rare pieces.’ And lastly, the number of pieces: ‘Twenty six copies of the original plates by the extraordinary Rembrandt.’

According to Vieira Duque, Dionísio Pinheiro purchased the first engraving from Luís Reis Santos in 1956, buying the remaining ones in 1958 and 1959. ‘Professor Luís Reis Santos was the middleman and the value was so great that it took 8 to 10 years to complete the sale. Three meetings took place in Coimbra to sell the three lots. That is only documented orally by the people from that time who are still alive, and by those who frequented Dionísio Pinheiro’s home and remember it.’

Vieira Duque also believes the pieces have other details that could mean they’re originals: ‘We have some with collector markings, like the seal from the French Royal Library, for instance, where you have the Rembrandt theme and the seal. We know one of the lots belonged to the French Royal Library or that its origin is from there. Another lot came from the Petit Palais and it was exposed there, composed of 125 of the pieces we have here.’

In a contact established with the Petit Palais, via email, we got the following answer from the document center of the Parisian museum: ‘The only exhibit focusing on Rembrandt held at the Petit Palais during this period was the Engravings by Rembrandt and Albert Durer Exhibit, in 1933. The engravings exhibited are part of the museum’s collection (a legacy left by Eugène and Auguste Dutuit in 1902).’

We also contacted the Rijkmuseum, in Amesterdam, that houses the great Rembrandt collection, and the French National Library, but there was no reply.

Miguel Vieira Duque alleges he has no further documentation because it disappeared from the Foundation. ‘They thought the receipts and the original documentation weren’t important. The documentation that exists regarding some pieces — and there is still some left — is classified, treated and filed in the vault.’ So, it can’t be seen. Even still, he lets out that there’s ‘a piece of paper attached to an engraving saying it was touched up by pen and there’s another one handwritten by Luís Reis Santos where you can read ‘Dionísio Pinheiro purchased from me in three lots of 150, 126 and 6.’ The value isn’t mentioned anywhere.’ That means there isn’t only oral evidence.

Personal attacks

The number of people visiting the Museum at the Dionísio Pinheiro Foundation has been growing remarkably ‘and much of this success is due to this collection,’ observes Miguel Vieira Duque. ‘In 2010, the institution had 204 visitors; in 2011, there were 2711; last year there were 5143; and this year we’ve already passed four thousand. When I got here, three years ago, there was a typewriter, now we have computers and an Internet connection; we had a battery powered radio, and now there’s music all over the Museum. The budget was 50 thousand Euros, now it’s around 200 thousand. The Museum opened twice a week, now it opens every day. I had the hedges trimmed so they didn’t cover up the building, the gates are always open, and the gardens, which had brambles all the way to the back, are now used by children who come here to play.’

Although acknowledging that presenting the assets, supposedly by Rembrandt, would always cause some controversy, he didn’t imagine the attacks would become personal, to the point of receiving anonymous phone calls which lead him to file a report with the Police and asking for his criminal record and a certificate from the Bank of Portugal certifying his repute. ‘When I got to the registry office, the lady at the counter recognized me immediately and so did the doorman at the Bank of Portugal. Once, I was approached by people when I was putting gas in my car and I gave a class on Rembrandt in the middle of the gas station.’ The curator, who everybody calls doctor, — and that’s what says in his business card – justifies this reaction with the ‘mediocre time of crisis’ the country is going through. ‘First, they attack the institutions and then it’s the people in charge of those institutions. First, it’s the professional part, then it’s the personal one,’ he declares.

He says he has technical training in the area of conservation and restoration from an institute in Milan, and that he is registered in a masters in Sociomuseology at the Universidade Lusófona, a fact that the institution denied to Jornal de Notícias. ‘The personal attacks have a single goal: breaking the bond of trust I have with national and foreign institutions with which I have very strong ties. There are tens of professionals behind me, who’ve been giving me an extraordinary support. I respect all those who respect me and know I won’t bring out things that don’t mater.’

Miguel Vieira Duque is always electric. He talks with his hands displaying and articulate ring that completely covers his ring finger, he wears black leather pants and his hair is the same color, reaching his chin and shaved at the sides. He’s thin and slightly hunched. According to him, none of that maters to his job: ‘My hair is who I am, my rings and my hands are who I am. And that doesn’t interfere in the slightest. It only interferes with me.’ He says he lives for the Foundation and that made him put an end to a seven year marriage. Even on his wedding day he was true to his principles. He married with cult separation and the music heard when the bride walked down the aisle was Into my arms by Nick Cave, which he recites integrally in Portuguese.

Vieira Duque talks a lot about art, he talks a lot about the Museum, he talks a lot about himself – he shows the painting he bought with last year’s holiday allowance and that he gave to the Foundation, a piece by Manuel Filipe, a Portuguese neorealist painter. He gives his heart and soul to his job and blames the ‘Portuguese spirit’ for the reactions surrounding this controversy. ‘I had a professor who was a priest and he gave us the following advice when we had to evaluate religious pieces: first we have to look – count to 20; then we have to observe – count to 40; then we have to evaluate internally – count to 80; and then count to 4,000 before saying anything.’ Wise teachings.