Market prices of work by Vermeer (the “Sphinx of Delft”)?


Since his rediscovery in the middle of the 19th century and the passionate contribution of the French art historian Théophile Thoré, Vermeer’s work has captivated artists and collectors worldwide. Early next year, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam will be opening a Johannes Vermeer retrospective that promises to be the largest exhibition ever devoted to the Dutch master.

The Rijksmuseum’s retrospective of 17th century master Jan VERMEER VAN DELFT in early 2023 (February 10 – June 4, 2023) will benefit from loans from all over the world and promises to be the most exhaustive show of Vermeer’s work ever presented. Of the 35 (or 37) known Vermeer works, around 24 are expected, including such essential pieces as The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis, The Hague), Woman Writing a Letter with Her Maid (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), The Geographer (Städel Museum, Frankfurt), The Woman Holding a Balance (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and the recently restored Reader at the Window (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden).

Since the Rijksmuseum’s official announcement last December, the forthcoming exhibition has aroused considerable anticipation. A master of genre painting, Vermeer’s paintings fascinate with their modest formats and their exceptional command of light. But these everyday scenes “of contemplation, harmony in rest and pure poetry” (to quote art historian Albert Blankert) were almost forgotten after Vermeer died in 1675, exhausted by heavy debts. Vermeer was not only the painter we know; having taken over a business from his father, he was also a recognized art dealer in the town of Delft, a business that suffered sorely in the economic slump that affected the United Provinces following the military invasions of both France and England in the early 1670s. His already fragile situation was so undermined that he sank into deep depression and died at the age of 43, leaving behind eleven children (ten of whom were minors) and a bereaved wife who was forced to file for bankruptcy the following year.


“In Vermeer’s View of Delft… there’s a small patch of yellow wall (which he did not remember) that was so well painted that it was, if viewed alone, like a precious work of Chinese art, of a beauty that was in itself quite sufficient.” – Marcel Proust

A rare and complex market

In 1989, John Michael Montias published a socio-economic study of the 17th century art market in the city of Delft, a study which attests to the rare but important support given to this this relatively unknown artist with a relatively low output. Montias suggests that the only collector of Vermeer paintings who could rightly be called a patron was Pieter Claesz van Ruijven. Vermeer worked almost exclusively for him, selling only two or three paintings a year, but at high prices (up to a hundred florins each). His economic base therefore had very little in common with the other great artists of his time, and, with a large family and an activity as an art dealer, Vermeer is now thought to have painted no more than 36 or 37 works. Indeed, the artist was so unknown during his life that in the years following his death, some of his works were apparently signed with the names of other Dutch painters to increase their value! One of the most valuable painters in art history today, the values of his works are difficult to estimate, and the two auction results that we have say more about the complexity of his market than about the true value of his paintings.

In short, Vermeer is one of the rarest signatures on the market, whose known works are kept in the most prestigious museums in the world, with the exception of a jewel of the British royal collections, The Music Lesson (1660-1662) and two other paintings that have appeared at auction over the past 20 years.

The last auction dates back to 2014 with the presentation at Christie’s of Saint Praxedis, painted in 1655 when the artist was 22 or 23 years old. Saint Praxedis was attributed to Vermeer in 1969 and included in his œuvre in 1986. However, its authorship was subsequently requestioned and when Christie’s presented the painting on the market in 2014, it tried to reassure potential buyers by disclosing the findings of new scientific research conducted by the Rijksmuseum and the Free University of Amsterdam. These studies confirmed that the painting is indeed Dutch and suggest that the paint used to paint Saint Praxedis is the same as that used for two other paintings clearly authenticated as being by Vermeer. In the end, Christie’s obtained a somewhat timid result of $10.7 million for the picture of the Christian Saint, falling short of its expectations. The positive results from the scientific studies were not sufficiently reassuring for a market already haunted by the specter of Han Van Meegeren, a brilliant Dutch forger who passed his own creations off as authentic Vermeer paintings that were subsequently acquired by major museums, after fooling the world’s greatest art experts.

It should be remembered that Han van Meegeren obtained pigments used in Vermeer’s time, including lapis lazuli which he ground to obtain the characteristic and precious ultramarine, the price of which exceeded that of gold in Vermeer’s time. He produced his fakes on the scraped canvases of unimportant 17th century paintings. During his trial in 1947, Han Van Meegeren admitted having sold seven fake Vermeers to some of the world’s most prestigious museums.

The Vermeer fakes scandal may also have dampened the result at a Sotheby’s sale on 7 July 2004. A portrait of a Young Woman seated at the Virginals, her hands resting on her keyboard with her head turned towards the spectator. Her somewhat distracted gaze seems to reflect her thoughts… her inner music. Very cautiously estimated at around $5.5 million, the 25.2 x 20 cm painting soared to $29.9 million, becoming, at the time, the second best result for a painting from the Ecole du Nord, just ahead of Portrait of a Lady, Aged 62 (1632) by the Dutch master REMBRANDT VAN RIJN (1606-1669) which fetched $28.6 million in December 2000 in London.

Before that result, the previous Vermeer auction was way back in 1921 when his La Ruelle (circa 1658) was offered in the Six Collection sale. Not receiving a satisfactory bid, La Ruelle was exhibited for a few days at the Louvre and was the subject of a private sale. Acquired for 625,000 florins by the oil magnate Henri Deterding, the canvas was donated the same year to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Vermeer nearly became one of the auction market’s most highly valued painters

Between the sale of Vermeer’s Young Woman Playing the Virginal and that of his Saint Praxedis, the Dutch master almost become one of the most highly valued painters because the market almost got the opportunity to bid for a pure masterpiece, The Art of Painting (1665-1668), Vermeer’s greatest work and jewel of the collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Hitler had bought the painting in 1940 during the Anschluss (the Third Reich’s annexation of Austria) from Count Jaromir Czernin for the sum of 1.65 million Reichsmarks (about $660,000 at the time). After the war the descendants of the original owner attempted to recover the work arguing that the transaction had taken place under duress. In 2009 a request for the painting’s restitution was referred to the Austrian Ministry of Culture at a time when the painting was considered likely to fetch 200 million dollars (after its restitution). Unfortunately for Helga Conrad, granddaughter of the former owner, the Austrian commission responsible for the restitution of artworks stolen by the Nazis did not decide in her favour and the painting still hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna…