Rothschild's `Coddled' Rembrandts Go on Display at Paris Louvre

  • Banking tycoon sold two art works to Dutch and French states
  • Dutch royals, Hollande present for public display of paintings

French banking tycoon Eric de Rothschild was happy to see two paintings by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, owned by his family for generations, finally on display at the Louvre museum Thursday.

“They look great here, much better now they’ve had a bit of a clean -- I think the last one was in 1957!” Rothschild said, as he viewed the paintings with President Francois Hollande and the Dutch royal couple, visiting Paris to celebrate their purchase.

France and the Netherlands announced in September they had jointly bought the two rare works from the Rothschild family for 160 million euros ($176 million). The purchase, which is also the French state’s biggest-ever art acquisition, ended a year-long tussle that started after the Dutch offered to purchase and repatriate both masterpieces. The French state initially said it couldn’t afford them, before teaming up for a joint purchase with the Netherlands.

The Louvre carried out limited work, known as “bichonnage” or “coddling,” with a product called “fake saliva” on the paintings to restore some of their luster before they went on display today, according to French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay.

The Rembrandt paintings had a bumpy ride before arriving at the Louvre. Rothschild first offered them to the French museum, which waited a year before refusing to buy them, allowing the banker to look for a buyer outside France. The Rijksmuseum stepped in, but then the French state said it realized it didn’t want to lose the two works.

“There was some hesitation in the beginning,” Azoulay said in an interview. “The paintings were expensive and we didn’t know at first that this joint purchase solution was a possibility,” she said after the ceremony. “It was difficult, but we’ve made it here!” she added.

The two paintings are exceptional, even for Rembrandt, as they are his only known full-length portraits. Most of the Dutch master’s work is in museums -- including in Stockholm, Detroit, Baltimore, Zurich and Frankfurt -- rather than in private hands.

They will remain three months in the Louvre before being presented in the main gallery of Amsterdam’s Rijskmuseum for another three months. Then they will be treated to a full restoration. The sale agreement with Rothschild stipulates they must be on display alternatively in both museums, never be separated and never be loaned to other institutions.

The Louvre bought the woman’s portrait and the Rijksmuseum purchased the man’s, Azoulay said.

The portraits of Marten Soolmans and his fiancee Oopjen Coppit were owned by the Rothschild family since the mid-19th century and were on display in their private mansion without glass protection.

“These are unique European artworks and we’re happy they’re staying on the continent,” Louvre museum president Jean-Luc Martinez said in an interview. “The funding process, with two countries and two museums involved, is certainly something we will do again.”