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De Amsterdamse verzamelaar Herman Becker (ca. 1617-1678); Nieuwe gegevens over een geldschieter van Rembrandt

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image of Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art History

Up to now Herman Becker, one of the people who lent Rembrandt money in the straitened circumstances of the last years of his life, has had a bad press as an art-dealer who owed his wealth and influence to the exploitation of artists (Notes 1, 2). It is now possible to correct this image on the basis of recent research in the Amsterdam archives. Becker was born around 1617 and the supposition that he came from Riga in Latvia is borne out by the facts that he had contacts there, that his father Willem certainly lived there between 1640 and 1650 and that the words 'of or 'to' Riga appear in some documents after his name. His commercial activities certainly go back to 1635 (note 6) and from the earliest records of him in Amsterdam in the 1640s, it is clear that he was a merchant and that he also chartered ships. At this period he further invested money in shares and engaged in a certain amount of moneylending, while he is also mentioned as his father's agent. That financially he was almost certainly in a sound osition by the end of the 1640s is clear from the fact that in 1648 he gave a surety for the merchant Gerard Pelgrom, who was in debt to the Dutch East India Company. That same year he concluded an agreement with the merchant Abraham de Visscher to sell sailcloth for him in Riga. In the 1650s Becker strengthened his financial position and again engaged in moneylending. In 1653 he made a large loan to Johannes de Renialme, an art lover and dealer, and at the time of the latter's death in 1657 his debt to Becker was even larger, while the inventory of his estate mentions nine paintings, including three by Jan Lievens and one by Philips de Koninck, which were mortgaged to Becker along with some jewelry. From the autumn of 1653 Becker spent a considerable time in Riga, but he was certainly back in Amsterdam in 1658. In 1659 he married Anna Maria Vertangen, the widow of his former business contact Gerard Pelgrom, who had died in 1657. This marriage brought Becker two large houses on Keizersgracht, where he moved in June 1659. That he was a Lutheran emerges from records of the baptisms of two of his three children at the Lutheran church in Amsterdam. His wife died shortly after the birth of theyoungest child and was buried in the Oude Kerk on 9 November 1661. By her will Becker was granted usufruct of all her property until his death, on condition that he did not remarry. This increase in his means led to a change of direction in his activities in the 1660s and a growth in the scale and scope of his moneylending. Becker's library (see Appendix I) The list of books in Becker's inventory amounts to 285 titles, a not inconsiderable library by 17th-century standards (Note 26). Their diversity indicates that, though clearly an educated man, he was not a scholar, while they were not arranged under subjects, like a scholar's library, but according to sizes. The presence of works in Latin indicates that Becker must have been educated at a Latin or grammar school, but the large number of German titles point to his coming from the influential German elite, which had long dominated the city government, trade and the guilds in Riga and part of which, like Becker, was Evangelical Lutheran by religion. Books on religion and theology formed a third of the 145 books of which the titles are given, followed by histories and chronicles, classical literature, law, poetry, medicine, physics and astronomy. Contacts with artists In the 1660s Becker continued his shipping interest, but now also invested in property, building a house next to the two others on Keizersgracht in 1665. He also continued to lend money, now for the first time to artists. Rembrandt is known to have owed three sums of money to Becker: 537 guilders borrowed in December 1662 at 5% interest, 450 guilders borrowed in March 1663 against a pledge, and an obligation to Lodewijck van Ludick which was sold to Becker early in 1664 (Notes 31,32). Difficulties over repayment probably arose in the first two instances over disagreement as to the conditions of the loans. On 29 August 1665 the apothecary Abraham Francken declared in a sworn statement that he had ofered the amount due, plus the interest, to Becker at Rembrandt's request, but that Becker had refused to accept it, because Rembrandt first had to finish a Juno and also had to do something else for him. Rembrandt appears to have threatened legal action, but in any case the matter was settled on 6 October 1665 when Becker accepted the payment and returned the pledge, in the form of nine paintings and two (constprint boecken'. What happened to the Juno is not clear. A Juno by Rembrandt is listed in Becker's inventory and it is generally assumed that the Juno in the Armand Hammer Foundation in Los Angeles is the one mentiorted in the statemertt and the inventory. That it is certainly the one in the statement would seem to be justified by the fact that it appears to be unfinished (Notes 37,38). The sale of the obligation to Lodewijck van Ludick to Becker is attested in statements of 31 December 1664 by Abraham Francken and the poet-cum-dyer Thomas Asselyn, the latter declaring that it was bought for textiles to the value of 500 guilders. Three years later Rembrandt had still not paid the debt and the case was brought before an arbitration commission. In the commission's findings of 24 July 1668 the extent of the debt was settled at 1082 guilders, two-thirds of which had to be paid in cash, while the rest was to be paid off in six months in the form of drawings, prints or paintings. Rembrandt also agreed to pay the cash amount within six months while Becker agreed to pay Rembrandt's share of the costs. Rembrandt offered his person and possessions as surety and his son Titus also came forward as guarantor. Whether the debt was ever paid is unclear: Titus died shortly afterwards and Rembrandt about a year later (Note 42). The conditions were actually quite lenient, while Becker's admiration for Rembrandt's art is clear from the fact that he did not mind whether the debt was paid in paintings, prints or drawings. The fourteen works by Rembrandt in Becker's inventory are the largest group by a single master. Obviously Becker had a predilectionfor his work and bought it, but he did not sell it on, as has been suggested (Note 44). Two other artists who borrowed money from Becker were Frederick de Moucheron, who was given an apparently interest-free loan of a hundred guilders in August 1662 and Jan Lievens the Elder, who borrowed four hundred guilders in all between May 1667 and October 1668. By far the greatest number of loans made by Becker date from the period 1674-8, his debtors including Willem Six, Gerrit Uylenburg, Willem Blauw and Abraham van Halmael, as well as the artists Philips de Koninck, Domenicus van Tol and Antony van der Laen. The pledges for the loans are extremely varied, but paintinas often figured among them in the case of both artists and non-artists. In addition Becker also continued to invest in shipping and property. At the end of the summer of 1678 he fell seriously ill and on 16 September he was buried in the Oude Kerk. His estate at his death amounted to 200,000 guilders and it seems fairly clear that in the 1660s and 1670s his activities as a merchant had declined and he had lived mainly off the interest on loarts. Becker's collection of paintings (see Appendix II) Becker appears to have begun collecting pictures around 1660, when the increase in his means allowed it. By comparison with other collections of the day, such as those of Jan van de Cappelle (197 paintings) and Gerrit Uylenburg (95 paintings), his 231 works represent a very sizable holding (Note 63). In the case of 137 of them the name of the painter is known, the best represented artists being Rembrandt (14 works), Jan Lievens the Elder (6), Jan Lievens the Younger (10), Philips de Koninck (7), Frederick de Moucheron (5) and Rubens (3). The collection also included worksfrom Rembrandt's circle (Last-man and Bol) and from Haarlem (Brouwer, Jan de Bray, Goltzius and Cornelis van Haarlem), and in addition work by much earlier artists such as Dürer, Holbein, Lucas van Leyden and Herri met de Bles, as well as ten pictures of Italian origin. Becker certainly acquired paintings through his moneylending and he may further have had agreements like the one with Rembrandt with other artists, these actually being advantageous to both parties. However, his loans to artists were not very numerous, so he must certainly have bought a great many pictures as well. An advertisement discovered in the Oprechte Haerlems Dinsdacgse Courant of 21 March 1679 shows that Becker's art collection was sold separately from the rest of his estate. It also clearly describes him as a collector of many year's standing.No indication whatever has been found that Becker acted as an art-dealer, while his known financial transactions with artists show him to have acted fairly and in no sense can he be said to have exploited them.


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