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Disputed Vermeer sells for ?16.2m at auction July 8, 2004
By Will Bennett, Art Sales Correspondent

A painting recently recognised as a work by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer after being regarded as a fake for decades fetched ?16.2 million at an auction in London last night.

The price paid for A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals by an anonymous private telephone bidder at Sotheby's provided the art market's qualified seal of approval for the painting as the 36th known work by the 17th century artist.

The Vermeer, once dismissed as a dud, fetched ?16.2 million

Seven bidders competed for the painting, which Sotheby's had given an extremely cautious pre-sale estimate of ?3 million. Most art market insiders believed that it would fetch between ?10 million and ?15 million but it would have sold for far more if it had been less controversial.

The leading Dutch art dealer Robert Noortman dropped out of the bidding at ?14.5 million.

The painting was the first Vermeer to be auctioned since 1921 and may be the last ever offered for sale.

However, the debate about its provenance continued right up until last night's auction.

Some experts said that the painting was simply too poor to be by such a great artist.

The painting was attributed to Vermeer seven months ago by a committee consisting mainly of Dutch museum experts. Its verdict was crucial as all other known pictures by Vermeer are either in museums or in the Royal Collection.

The painting had been regarded as a Vermeer in the early 20th century when it was in the collection of Sir Alfred Beit in Ireland. But the attribution was withdrawn after a forgery scandal in 1947 cast doubt on a number of pictures.

It was bought from a London gallery in 1960 by Baron Freddie Rolin, a Belgian dealer and collector who set out to prove that it was a Vermeer.

In 1993 he enlisted the help of Gregory Rubinstein, a Sotheby's expert whom he met by chance. In 2001 the painting was included in the exhibition of Vermeer's work at the National Gallery in London although it had not been officially re-attributed to him. Not all critics were convinced, one dismissing it as an "irredeemable dud".

Despite such doubts the committee of experts was unanimous in attributing the painting to Vermeer after it was examined under a microscope.

Libby Sheldon, a paintings material analyst at University College London, discovered that the pigments in the painting corresponded with the unusual, expensive and often rare ones used by Vermeer.

She also found that the canvas matched that used by Vermeer in The Lacemaker, his only other painting of this size. It is thought that the two pieces of canvas may have been cut from the same length of cloth.

Baron Rolin, who championed the work for so long, died in 2002 and the painting was sold by his estate.



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