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  • Vermeer surfaces in Philadelphia October 5, 2004
    The painting was sold for ?16.2 million at Sotheby’s London in July.
    By Lucian Harris

    On loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art until March 2005. The owner remains a mystery.
    Johannes Vermeer’s “Young woman seated at the virginals”, which sold for ?16.2 million ($30 million) at Sotheby’s in London on 7 July, is now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (until 30 March 2005).

    Amid great publicity, the painting was bought by an unnamed bidder for more than five times its pre-sale estimate. Not only was it the first Vermeer to appear at auction since 1921, but it was the only one remaining in private hands aside from one in the Royal Collection (“The music lesson”, 1662-5, which is currently on view in “Enchanting the eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age” at the Queen’s Gallery, Holyroodhouse, until 7 November).

    Since 1960 the painting had been in the possession of the Belgian dealer Baron Frederic Rolin, who made great efforts to authenticate it after revelations that a Dutch forger had sold a number of fake Vermeers in the 1930s and 1940s. Though Baron Rolin did not live to see the painting sold, its authenticity, was finally established to the satisfaction of most before the Sotheby’s sale. Speculation was rife as to the identity of the buyer with many assuming that it was Steve Wynn, the American casino magnate, mainly because it emerged that Sotheby’s had flown the painting to Las Vegas for his personal perusal.

    Now the appearance of the Vermeer on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has further confounded observers as it has been accompanied by a distinct lack of publicity on the part of the museum. A spokesman for the institution would not answer questions concerning the ownership of the painting, nor would he say whether the Philadelphia Museum expects to receive more works of art on loan from the same source.

    This cloak of anonymity seems to discount Steve Wynn, who has announced his recent high profile purchases such as John Singer Sergant's portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, which has just gone on display at the Nevada Museum of Art in Las Vegas with other works from the Wynn collection (until 30 March 2005). Interestingly, that show ends on the same day as the Vermeer loan to Philadelphia.

    Another possibility, considering the Philadelphia Museum’s tight-lipped response, is that the Vermeer painting is on loan from a local collector with close ties to the institution. If correct, this could see the painting end up in the museum collection as was the case with the Rubens masterpiece “Massacre of the innocents”, which was bought for $77 million by Lord Thomson in 2002 and subsequently donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

    Yet another possibility is that the Vermeer may be owned by a dealer, and the loan to the Philadelphia Museum is a clever ruse to further validate what remains one of Vermeer’s less secure attributions.