The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, August 23, 2004  

A Loan, A Theft, and Much Talk

As my new home, in the Logan Square area of Philadelphia, is within fairly easy walking distance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a friend and I decided to take advantage of the museum’s Sunday “pay what you can” admission policy to take a look at A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, by Johannes Vermeer.

The Vermeer is on loan to the Philadelphia Museum through the end of March 2005 from a still-unknown private collector who bought the painting at auction at Sotheby’s last month.

A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals is a very small painting, just 10 by 8 inches, but it’s a Vermeer, and that alone makes it worth seeing. It is also one of only two Vermeers in private collections; the other “belongs” the Queen Elizabeth II.

While viewing the painting my friend mentioned the painting recently had sold for $30 million. “Thirty-point-seven,” the security guard standing nearby corrected. “You forgot the change.” At that point I asked the guard if she knew that Edvard Munch’s The Scream had been stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo earlier that day (see: “Munch’s ‘Scream’ Is Stolen From a Crowded Museum in Oslo,” by Walter Gibbs and Carol Vogel, the New York Times).

No, she hadn’t heard that, which, frankly, surprised me. Surely a major theft in Oslo would not portend a similar occurrence in Philadelphia, but it would seem to me that an armed heist of an extremely valuable work would have led the supervisor of the museum’s security staff to round up the troops for a cautionary “See, this could happen any time, people” sort of speech.

Meanwhile, speculation abounds regarding the identity of the collector who provided the loan. Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski writes (“A Secret Buyer, A Rare Work in Philadelphia,” August 22): “The Art Museum’s refusal to entertain even peripheral questions about the lender suggests that he or she might be a local collector or philanthropist who has a relationship with the institution. Would a perfect stranger grant the museum a favor of such magnitude? There are too few clues now to speculate, but I presume that eventually we’ll learn who the mystery benefactor is.”

Since most people are terrible at keeping secrets, I suspect word will get out before the loan ends next spring. If not, the painting will thereafter appear in someone’s home -- at the Gerald Lenfests or Leonore Annenberg’s place, perhaps -- and then it’s a quick call to the papers with the news.

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