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Reminder of a promise kept

I received a call from an attorney several years ago who said that the Estate he represented needed an appraisal of some diplomas, decorative prints, and small pictures in order to fulfill certain IRS requirements. He added that there was nothing special there as far as he could tell but would I help him out by looking at them and submitting an appraisal of their worth? I would be doing him a big favor and the key to the apartment would be with the doorman.

The apartment was large and empty except for a barrel of broken dishes in one corner of the front room and a stacked pile of what looked like framed diplomas in another. The first two pieces I picked up were indeed medical diplomas, but the third was Durer's 1519 engraving of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, th e fourth was that same artist's "St. Peter and St. John Healing the Cripple," and the fifth, his "The Sea Monster."

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"No, No!" I thought. "This just can't be! how could anyone not know the value of these?" I took a deep breath, and uncovered three lovely 16th century German portrait drawings, four engravings by Martin Schongauer, a complete set of Callot's "large Miseries of War," and other prints by Van Leyden, Van Ostade, and Raimondi. Only three prints remained, and when I turned them over I discovered Rembrandt's "The Goldsmith," "Christ Preaching," and "Faust in his Study."

Although the frames of many and the glass of some were broken, the prints and drawings themselves were in fairly good condition indicating that the damage was of recent origin. Was this somebody's idea of a joke? Or possibly a trick? But no, I decided, it made sense because people who don't know better tend to associate art with color and size and see prints as trivial things of little value. It had happened to me before and would undoubtedly happen again.

I slipped "Faust in his Study" out of its broken frame and held it in my hands. It was one of the richest impressions of this print I had ever seen and obviously not printed from the plate a century or more after Rembrandt had etched it. It was, very likely, one he himself had pulled because its tonalities and details were so deep and sharp. Almost certainly the artist had held this very sheet of paper a little over three hundred years before.

I sat there for a long time holding that print. What, I asked myself, was the true value of this thing, this piece of paper with marks and smudges of ink on it? In the market-place it was worth several thousand dollars, but what was its actual, its intrinsic worth? If I tore up this print what would the world loose?

True enough, there were many impressions of this print around. For one thing , the plate was still in existence in Paris -- although one hoped under lock and key! For another, it was one of the Rembrandt etchings so reworked by a succession of individuals throughout the years that recent impressions -- and some had been pulled in 1906 -- bore little resemblance to what Rembrandt had seen when he had first run the plate through the press in 1652. Even so fine an impression as the one I was holding was not among the most difficult of his etchings to obtain, but it was rare enough for it to be very much in demand by collectors and museums.

So there I sat with it in my hands wishing that somehow I could take it home with me. For a good two minutes I experienced the classic temptation any appraiser had under such circumstances: I was all alone in an apartment holding a valuable object whose existence was apparently unknown by any living person except myself. It would be so easy, I thought, to slip it into my briefcase and never report it. The lawyer for the Estate would be surprised enough about the other prints and drawings to ask no further questions.

I said the temptation lasted two minutes, actually ten was more like it. And yet, as I continued to study that print, I knew very clearly that I could never take it -- and knew also that that was largely so because of what the art of Rembrandt meant to me.

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I remembered the exact day I discovered Rembrandt. It was my eleventh birthday and father had driven the family to the only city in the corner of Minnesota where we lived to celebrate the occasion. I had dropped into the Public Library there to look at some of their art books, and found a recently arrived book on Rembrandt. I fell immediately and totally in love with that man's art and was still huddled over the book some time later when father dropped by to tell me that we were all going to the movies and that I should hurry up. No, I pleaded, couldn't I stay where I was and be picked up afterwards?

I remained in that small library until it got dark and until father came to get me for supper and the drive home. I had a special library card which permitted me to take out two books, and I decided upon a large one on Rembrandt's life, and a smaller one on his prints.

All the way home I had that inner bubbling feeling that something very special had happened to me, and that feeling has not left me to this day. I took the book on Rembrandt's etchings with me wherever I went. It became my bible, my book of ethics, my guide and my friend. It taught me how to draw, how to look, and how to see. Rembrandt's warmth and compassion filled up all the nooks and crannies of loneliness. A month later, when I returned the book, I was able to buy a copy from the bookstore with money I had made doing odd jobs for the neighboring farmers. The book remained a favorite of mine and was the only truly private item that went into my duffel-bag when I went overseas in World War II.

And so there I sat in that empty room a good thirty years later with an impression of one of my favorite etchings in my hands. A great deal of who I was had come into focus because of this. I had always known that I could never come close to doing what Rembrandt had been able to do, but, I had argued to myself: if not the genius and the quality, why at least not the truth? That I could try to emulate. And, having come to that decision at the age of eleven, I did not feel that I should fail it at forty-two.

I sighed, packed up the prints, and went home to call the lawyer. He was surprised and difficult to convince. But the subsequent sale of those beautiful things convinced him that I had been correct in my appraisal. And how did I feel? Well, I do wish sometimes that I could hold that impression once again, but mostly I'm pleased because that afternoon showed me what a Rembrandt etching is really worth. In my case it is priceless because it represents a vision and a love which altered my life and give it direction and meaning.


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