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Virginal Vermeer: Sold by Wynn, Now at the Met UPDATED

What’s that new addition to the Metropolitan Museum’s old masters galleries, catty-cornered with the museum’s iconic Vermeer, “Woman with a Water Pitcher”?


Let’s approach for a closer look:

Vermeer, “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,” Private Collection

Wait a minute, I know that lady with the vacuous expression and the awkward arms. I last gawked at the gawky girl when she was exhibited at Sotheby’s, New York, before her auction in London on July 7, 2004 (catalogue entry and a better photo, here).

The painting sold then for $30 million, an auction record for the artist, to an “anonymous” buyer (later identified as casino mogul Steve Wynn), who showed it for a time at the Philadelphia Museum. Last summer, the painting was at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in a show called Vermeer and the Delft Style—a title echoing the Met’s 2001 Vermeer and the Delft School. The Tokyo show also included the Met’s “Woman with a Lute.”
On Oct. 26, Norm Clarke of the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the peripatetic painting had changed hands again:

Resort developer Steve Wynn has sold the Johannes Vermeer painting he purchased four years ago for $30 million, sources have confirmed.

If true, that would mean he sold it at the price for which he bought it. A tipster told me that it is now owned by Leiden Gallery, New York, which an official at the gallery subsequently confirmed. The Met’s press office told me that it was hung on Dec. 29 in Gallery 14A of its European paintings galleries (where it is labeled as from a “Private Collection”). I saw it on Tuesday.

Until Sotheby’s had reported (in advance of the 2004 sale) the favorable findings of a committee assembled to study and restore the work, many experts had regarded this painting as a “near-Vermeer”—an imitation by a less gifted artist. A new book by Benjamin Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, theorizes that it (along with six other generally accepted Vermeers) was painted by the master’s eldest daughter—a hypothesis that Martin Bailey, in his review (not online) for this month’s Art Newspaper of five recent books on Dutch old masters, derided as a “wild assumption based on limited information.”

Although Walter Liedtke, the Met’s curator specializing in Dutch 17th-century art, now accepts the painting as a Vermeer (and includes it in his new monograph on the artist’s oeuvre), he balks at the yellow shawl.

According to the Met’s label:

Until recently this late work by Vermeer was little known, even to specialists. Technical examination and passages of painting very similar to those in Vermeer’s picture of the same title in The National Gallery, London, support the Delft artist’s authorship. However, another hand may have painted the yellow shawl, under which are traces of less voluminous attire.

Although Liedtke had displayed the painting without attribution in his “Vermeer and the Delft School” exhibition at the Met, he told me shortly after perusing the Sotheby’s report and the pre-auction restoration by Martin Bijl, former head of paintings conservation at the Rijksmuseum, that he considered the painting to be “a minor late work” by the master. He noted that Vermeer’s works from the 1670s were generally “less subtle in execution” than his best paintings.

The Met’s spokesperson, Elyse Topalian, told me on Wednesday that she was “waiting to hear back about how long it will be on view.” [UPDATE: Elyse now says that the painting “will be on view until June.”] As it happens, Holland Cotter reports in today’s NY Times that he visited the Met’s Dutch painting galleries just a few days ago. Did he notice that there was an interloper among those Vermeers?

an ArtsJournal blog