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How much is The Girl worth?

How much did the Mauritshuis pay for the Girl with a Pearl Earring when she entered the collection? Nothing. How much is she worth now? She’s priceless.

Today I’ll talk about how The Girl came into our collection, and the early conservation and restoration history of the painting.

The hammer falls at… 2 guilders and 30 cents

Although Vermeer painted The Girl around 1665, her first 200 years remain something of a mystery. In 1881, the painting was sold at the Notaries’ Auction House in The Hague. During the viewing, it caught the attention of two art experts, who were also friends and neighbours: Victor de Stuers and Arnoldus Andries des Tombe.

The painting was so dirty and in such poor condition that it was hard to see what it actually was. Despite the poor condition of the painting, De Stuers immediately recognised it as a Vermeer, but kindly agreed not to bid against his buddy Des Tombe at the auction. That meant that Des Tombe could buy it for the bargain basement price of two guilders…plus a 30 cent commission. In today’s money, that’s about 30 euros. After restoration, the signature ‘IVMeer’ was revealed, and it was recognised as a work by Johannes Vermeer.

After Des Tombe died in 1902, the Mauritshuis found out that he bequeathed twelve paintings to the museum, including The Girl. Dank u wel, Meneer des Tombe!

Two linings and two ‘Wild’ restorations

One thing is clear: The Girl was in a ‘deplorable state of neglect’ when Des Tombe bought it. In 1882, he took it to Van der Haeghen, a restorer in Antwerp, to have the painted lined. An additional piece of canvas was glued to the back of the original canvas to provide extra support.


1924 photo of the Girl from the Mauritshuis catalogue

In 1915 and 1922, The Girl was treated twice at the Mauritshuis by Derex de Wild. The files in the conservation studio tell us that in 1915, the painting was ‘cleaned, regenerated and varnished.’ Then seven years later, the top layer of varnish was restored.


J.C. Traas retouching the Girl, 1960

By the 1960s, the cracks in the The Girl had become more visible, and the retouchings had changed colour over time. J.C. Traas removed the varnish and some of the retouchings. He also took off the 19th-century lining, then lined the painting again: this time with a wax-resin adhesive. He retouched damages and applied a tinted varnish to the painting, since back then a yellow varnish was seen (by some) as attractive.

Nowadays, some conservation treatments include removing yellow varnish and discoloured retouchings, then applying a varnish to saturate and protect the surface. We try to find alternatives to lining, and we would never apply a tinted varnish. Conservators today try as much as possible to do justice to the artist’s original intent, and the materials that we apply should be easily removable in the future. However, it’s important to look back on the history of our profession and realise that conservation ethics do change. 

The conservation studio at the Mauritshuis isn’t just a place for restoring works of art; it is also an important centre for documentation, expertise and research. There’s a chapter about conservation history at the Mauritshuis in the book Preserving our Heritage, along with information about 14 case studies of conservation treatments, including The Girl and two other Vermeer paintings.

My colleagues and I make sure that paintings in our collection are preserved for the future. An important part of our work is also researching artists’ materials and techniques, which is why the current The Girl in the Spotlight project fits so well into our mission.


The Girl before 1994 treatment

Later I’ll explain more about canvases and varnishes. Tomorrow’s blog post will be about ’s most recent conservation treatment in 1994. 

References

  • What is a lining? (Wikipedia)
  • Noble, Petria and Epco Runia (2009) Preserving our Heritage: Conservation, Restoration and Technical Research in the Mauritshuis, Waanders.
  • Wadum, Jørgen (1993) Vermeer Illuminated: Conservation, Restoration and Research, V+K Publishing/Inmerc, Naarden.

Acknowledgements

Carol Pottasch, Sabrina Meloni, Ellen Nigro, Marya Albrecht, Lieve d’Hont

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