The Rembrandt hunter: meet the Dutch dealer who is shaking up the art world

Lucy Davies talks to Jan Six about the fake-or-fortune life of a Rembrandt 'detective'

Dutch art dealer Jan Six, with Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Man
Dutch art dealer Jan Six, with Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Man Credit: Reuters/Screenocean

To bring to light an unknown work by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) is surely every art dealer’s dream, “though you’re always wondering if you might be crazy,” says Jan Six, in a new film about the closed, creaky old world of Rembrandt collectors. 

At 41, the Dutch dealer is a fledgling among the white-haired gents who inhabit that high stakes sphere. Even so, he has unearthed not one, but several lost works by the Dutch master in his career, “like a hound that had got the taste of blood in its mouth,” he says, at one point, though at others he looks as if he is about to be sick. A dealer, you see, is only ever as good as his last painting; with one false claim no-one will ever trust you again. “But I love it,” he says. “I love the hunt.” 

Six is the scion of Amsterdam art-istocracy, and the eleventh of his name. His ancestor, Jan Six I, was an important figure during the Gouden Eeuw of the 17th century, when Holland led the way in trade and in scientific and artistic achievement. Merchant, mayor and playwright, Six I was also a collector, Rembrandt’s good friend, and, in 1654, painted by the artist himself. 

That portrait, widely considered the most valuable Rembrandt in private hands, still hangs today (next to Michelangelo, Frans Hals and Vermeer) in the Six family home, a 58-room palazzo on the Amstel river in which young Six played football as a child. His father, Six X, is its current Governor, a role to which he will one day accede, though it shouldn’t be a stretch – he’s been giving tours of its art collection since he was 13. 

Six, then, was a shoo-in on the list of subjects for filmmaker Oeke Hoogendijk, when she began work on My Rembrandt in 2013. As was the Duke of Buccleuch, who owns Rembrandt’s 1655 painting An Old Woman Reading and displays it at his Dumfriesshire home, Castle Drumlanrig. When Hoogendijk saw it in the flesh, she tells me, she was so overcome that she made a bow. 

Rembrandt's Old Woman Reading (1655) hangs above the Duke of Buccleuch's fireplace

“She is the most powerful presence in this house,” agrees the Duke, who consistently refers to his painting as a real person, “I feel her mind working; the intensity of her concentration. If she looked up, you wouldn’t be in any way surprised.”

The Duke inherited the painting (along with sundry other masterpieces and 240,000 acres) when he ascended the title in 2007, though it has been in the family since 1740, who jokingly refer to it as old lady Reading, as in the Berkshire town. 

In the film, the Duke decides to move his painting (following the theft of a Leonardo in 2003, many other valuable pieces were hung out of reach). “I knew she was miserable where she was,” he says, carrying the priceless canvas up the stairs as you might a cup of tea. “It’s important not to be too precious,” he adds. “One has to have that sense of confidence, to hold it in the way that Rembrandt did.” 

Incredibly, when Hoogendijk first decided to make the film, not one of the events which contribute to its heart-in-mouth plot were so much as a twinkle in her subjects’ eyes. 

Rembrandt's 1654 portrait of Jan Six I Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Six, for instance, had not been accused of deception by a fellow dealer, or yet set eyes on either of the two paintings formerly attributed to other artists – Let The Little Children Come To Me (1620s) and Portrait of a Gentleman (1635) – that, in the film, he sets out to prove are genuine Rembrandts (I won’t spoil how). 

Nor had Baron Eric de Rothschild, the French banker, intimated that he would sell Rembrandt’s 1634 wedding portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, which had been in the Rothschild family for 134 years. It sparked a diplomatic row between France and Holland, as both Louvre and Rijksmuseum raced to secure the 160 million euro asking price. 

To say Hoogendijk struck gold, then, in this often excruciatingly slow-moving, obsessive world – a world that makes distinguished men giggle excitedly like children, in which experts think nothing of counting every thread in a canvas (to check its similarity to the canvas of a known work), or scratch away for years at a few square inches of overpainting, is quite an understatement. 

The reason they do is because Rembrandt is, well, Rembrandt – the finest painter, draughtsman and etcher of the Golden Age, and a captivating character to boot: a rule-breaker, a spendthrift, a veiny-nosed old sot. Stories don’t come much better than that.  

“When one comes along, they always have impact,” says George Gordon, Sotheby’s Rembrandt expert (he taught Six a thing or two, in fact, when the latter worked at Sotheby’s in the 2000s). Gordon was in Sotheby’s London saleroom last week when six eager bidders fought for a Rembrandt self portrait hardly larger than your handspan. It sold for £14,549,400 – more than double the previous record.

A Rembrandt self-portrait at Sotheby's last month Credit: Paul Grover

The painting, which dates from 1632 – the year after Rembrandt moved from his hometown of Leiden to Amsterdam – was likely “a sort of calling card,” Gordon says. Date and authorship were confirmed by matching the oak panel on which it had been painted with Rembrandt’s portrait of his friend, Maurits Huygens, now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany. 

In the 19th-century, when dealers had often only a black-and-white picture to go on when making attributions, there were said to be 988 Rembrandt paintings. Today, art historians agree on something nearer 400, “though that figure is still being refreshed,” says Gordon.

“The paintings don’t lie,” offers Six, who keeps a notebook about his person in which he records his first impression of every painting. “The object doesn’t change. It’s people that change their ideas.” When did he know he had a nose? “You never know,” he replies. “You get a certain feeling, but you have to be able to prove it. You’re in a kind of fog. You weren’t there when the murder happened, but you do have a dead body...a painting full of clues.” 

As tension builds in the film, the subjects’ reactions grow ever more physical. So affected is expert Ernst van de Wetering by Six’s suggestion that Portrait of a Gentleman might be a Rembrandt, that he pales visibly and then actually stumbles in front of the painting. “I’ve lived for so long with all the other Rembrandts and suddenly this new gentleman appears", he says afterwards.

Meanwhile Thomas Kaplan, the New York entrepreneur who owns 11 of the 35 or so Rembrandt paintings in private hands, confesses to kissing Woman with a White Cap (1634) on the lips. “I was astonished to think that I owned and had the legal right to touch it,” he  says. “It was exhilarating...intoxicating.”

It may not have escaped your notice that every person involved here is male. “I have not been able to find any women who own a Rembrandt anywhere,” says Hoogendijk, who thinks that is largely the result of primogeniture. She pauses. “There is the Queen of England, of course, but everyone told me there was no use speaking to her, because she wouldn’t do the talking herself.”

I ask Six if the impression the film gives of this extraordinary world feels true. “For those outside, yes, it is as close as you can get to being inside the bubble,” he replies. “But there is also more to it, things that you can only really understand when you are connected to it; when you live it day to day, year on year. Only I suppose those are things that you can’t exactly show, or even explain.”

Is there another discovery in his sights? “I’m always busy with new leads,” he says, evasively. “You know, the first time it happened, in 2006, a journalist compared me to a 15-year-old winning a [tennis] grand slam. He was like, ‘Top that: you’re so full of yourself’, and I said to him, ‘I just started. Watch me.” 

My Rembrandt is in selected Curzon cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 14 August dogwoof.com