Rembrandt, Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, 1632, Courtesy The Mauritshuis

In Conversation with Dr. Quentin Buvelot, the Senior Curator at the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis (Het Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen, in The Hague on the outstanding collection of Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo. The couple, originally from the Netherlands and Belgium, has put together a magnificent collection of Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings: all are of outstanding quality and on a par with those in leading museums in New York, Washington, London and Amsterdam, as well as The Hague. Since the paintings were originally destined to hang in private homes, the Made in Holland exhibition is in its element in the intimate rooms of the The Mauritshuis, which was built in the seventeenth century (1636-41). Originally built by John Maurice, Prince of Nassau-Siegen (1604–1679), the Royal Cabinet of Paintings, and Rarities was established in 1822, and was dedicated to the display of paintings, in 1875.

Homa Taj – I would like to ask you to say a few words about the Symposium on collecting Old Master paintings which Maurithuis co-organized with RKD (Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentrie), on November 10th. The Symposium was to mark Made in Holland: Highlights from the Collection of Eijk and Rose-Marie de Mol van Otterloo.

The symposium devoted to collecting old master paintings, organized on November 10th by the Netherlands Institute for Art History and the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, was a huge success. More than 180 people attended a very lively gathering, with talks focussing on the business of collecting. All speakers were remarkably open about their particular subject or work. Collector Eijk de Mol van Otterloo talked about many aspects of his collection, including particular acquisitions and some recent restorations — everyone “hung on to his every word” as he is a great speaker. Young art dealer Jan Six, who grew up surrounded by old master paintings in Amsterdam, highlighted some recent rediscoveries he made while working for a major auction house, including a Brouwer now in the Antwerp museum. Peter Sutton, Bruce Museum, Director, gave an overview of collecting Dutch paintings in America, which has proven to be a popular activity today, with many different collectors of old master paintings. Emilie Gordenker, Mauritshuis, Director, gave an overview of recent developments in the Mauritshuis collection, speaking about recent acquisitions as well as some future ones. Art consultant Marina Aarts, Amsterdam, talked about some recent projects for clients from all walks of life. Rudi Ekkart, Netherlands Institute for Art History, Director, talked about the Dutch tax regulations and the attractive arrangements for people who donate works of art to Dutch museums. The symposium was chaired by me (Quentin Buvelot) who concluded that collecting is a genuine team effort, as collectors ideally should team up with museum staff, conservators, dealers and independent researchers. And: old master paintings are a joy forever!

HTJ – How possible is it to amass a collection of this quality in today’s market? And, from which of Van Otterloo’s acquisition strategies can today’s collectors learn?

To build up a collection of this quality, one needs not only have the necessary budget, but also a certain expertise in the field of art and an understanding of market mechanisms. From October 1995 onwards, Simon Levie (born in 1925), former director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was closely involved with the collection’s growth in an advisory capacity. On this informal advisorship, Eijk de Mol van Otterloo says: “Those days, we were being offered so much that we couldn’t see the wood for the trees. What’s more, everything looked equally beautiful to our eyes. We didn’t want to do anything stupid, and so we knew we needed help.” From then on, they deliberated carefully over every purchase, as is clear from the detailed correspondence between Levie and the collectors. That diverse factors played a role in their purchases is clear from a short list that Eijk de Mol van Otterloo sent to Levie: the collectors wanted to know everything about the subject of the painting, the importance of the artist, the work’s place in the artist’s oeuvre, its rarity and provenance, its condition, and – last but not least – the asking price. Whenever they were considering buying a painting, they looked closely at the condition of the canvas or panel. Some of the paintings were in excellent condition when they purchased them; in other cases, they have had them restored.

HTN – I can’t imagine that it would have been a difficult decision to invite the Van Otterloos to exhibit their collection at Maurithuis since they possess one of the finest private collections of Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings in the world. But, how and when did the idea of this show come about?

The Van Otterloos have been amongst the most generous lenders to the Mauritshuis in the recent past. We are now more grateful than ever for their willingness to part with their much-loved paintings for the duration of this exhibition, and we are quite sure that visitors to the exhibition will feel the same way.

HTN – In the light of the above question, I understand that the Van Otterloos have only recently begun to show their collections at public museums. Had you, at any point, worked with them – advise them on their collecting adventures, etc – prior to this show? When was the first time that you heard about them…?

I knew of the existence of the collection since the early 1990s. At that time, they were only credited as “Private Collection.” Ever since 1998, they have been generous lenders to the Mauritshuis, to the permanent collection as well as for temporary exhibitions.

HN – Were there any surprises when you began to examine the collection? For example, where there paintings about which you knew but had either not seen or only knew of them through black & white reproduction, etc…?

Some paintings – like the (Karel) Du Jardin – were not seen for decades or even completely unpublished, like the (Adam) Pijnacker and the (Balthasar) Van der Ast. Major surprises!

HTN – In addition to the number of exquisite works by Rembrandt, Hendrick Avercamp, Frans Hals, Adriaen van Ostade, and Gerrit Dou, what (qualities) makes The van Otterloo Collection so iconic and desirable?

It is striking that the works not only present attractive scenes, but that each one, without exception, is in outstanding condition, a criterion that the couple have emphasised more and more over the years.

HTN – I read somewhere that after the Van Otterloos purchased Rembrandt’sPortrait of Aletje Uylenburgh, Aged 62 (1631), their acquisition slowed down since the collecting bar had been raised so high that it was nearly not possible for them to top it. Have you encountered this (almost)* aesthetic paralysis by collectors before…?

In 2005 the collection was elevated to a higher order with the purchase of Rembrandt’s portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh (1632), since then the collection’s undisputed pièce de resistance. Rose-Marie de Mol van Otterloo calls this painting, which came from the celebrated Rothschild collection, ‘the jewel in the crown of our collection’. To purchase the Rembrandt, a process that took some three years, the Van Otterloos again sold a group of paintings – 18 works in total.

HTN – Maurithuis is the first and only European destination for this exhibition which is scheduled to travel to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. What other venues in the US have been confirmed?

After the exhibition closes here in 2011, the entire collection of paintings will be shown, together with a smaller selection of antique furniture and decorative art, in the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem. This larger version of the show will travel on to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and subsequently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

HTN – I can only imagine every museum in the world wishing to be the eternal guardian of this breathtaking collection. Have the Van Otterloos expressed any inclination as to what they plan to do with their collection, in the future? (Whatever you may say, please let it not be, “sell it at an auction”!)

The Van Otterloos are also deliberating about the best future location for their collection. For they are determined that this collection, their life’s work, will be preserved intact. The children know that they will not inherit the paintings. How and where the couple wish to make the collection permanently accessible to the public in the future has not yet been settled, although they hope that it can be preserved in its entirety in a foundation in the United States, the country that made all this possible. The current exhibition provides a fine opportunity to contemplate this destination in more concrete terms. In Eijk’s words, “It will help us to decide what we’re going to do with the collection in the future.”

HTN – Would you like to say a few words about The American Friends of the Maurithuis…?

The American Friends of the Mauritshuis support the museum in various ways, one of the most important being the annual awarding of grants to American students wishing to study Dutch or Flemish art in the Netherlands. One way to increase their knowledge of art history is to study the impressive collection of the Mauritshuis. The American Friends, who have been active since 1982, regularly organise excursions to the Netherlands, and are very important to us.