T.M. has two etchings on paper mounted on a sheet. The bottom of one reads “The Schoolmaster Nr. 190 — 1641 — B.128” and the other reads “Cornelis Claesz Anslo Nr. 191 — 1641 — B.271.”
They are in the style of Rembrandt. What do those numbers mean?
They mean something important in the history of scholarship — because they come to us from a great “catalogue raisonne,” which is French for a “reasoned catalog.” One of the hidden gems of the art scholars’ world is the compilation of such a catalog. One scholar spends most of his/her life tracking down one aspect of one artist’s work and makes copious lists; these lists are critical tools in assessing the authenticity, provenance and attribution of that artist’s oeuvre. If you want to see just how painstakingly detailed these are, go to the International Foundation for Art Research(www.ifar.org) and plug in a famous artists’ name. IFAR has an online database of published “catalogue raisonne.” Without these (mostly) unknown scholars working for years, the art world’s auctions would grind to a halt. If you are going to buy a Rembrandt, you want to know what the world knows.
These worthy tomes include the artist’s bibliographies, titles, sizes; dates of the work and reproductions; and who has owned the work. Can you imagine (pre-internet) tracking this down? Look at my first paragraph: “B-128” and “B-271.” Those are the numbers assigned to Rembrandt’s prints by the late 18th through early 19th century scholar Johann Adam Bernhard Ritter von Bartsch (1757-1821) of Austria. His catalog of Old Master prints laid the foundations of the history of printmaking. An adviser to the Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen, he formed the collection of the Albertina in Vienna. Bartsch’s scholarship is famous for his work on Rembrandt’s prints and founded the world’s finest collection of Old Master prints, today called The Albertina.
The “Bs” on T.M.’s little Rembrandt reproductions refer to Bartsch’s work, consisting of 18 years of research in 21 huge volumes called Le Peintre Graveur (1821). This is still the main “catalogue raisonne” of all Rembrandt prints, and has been reprinted numerous times up until 1982. In his day, Bartsch could not illustrate his volumes. So in 1978, The Illustrated Bartsch was established to include illustrations and new print works since attributed to Rembrandt. It is STILL not completed.
What is so special about the “B” moniker is that Bartsch thought in categories about etchings and engravings, and his system of categories is still used today. Bartsch cataloged many Old Master printmakers, and whenever you see a “B,” think of J.A. Bartsch.
Bartsch listed according to subject matter, or genre. Logically, self-portraits get the lowest numbers; they come “first” in the list of works by an Old Master printer (the term Old Master ceases to be used for works after 1830). After images of the artist himself, the next category lists biblical subject matter. Next comes images of saints. Then images of allegories.
Bartsch developed this system, and numbered image upon image of Old Master prints. A little-known hero, he classified print images the way Carl Linnaeus invented the modern naming system of organisms in botany. This kind of mind was scientific, categorical and rational. There’s a fancy word for thinking about the things of the world this way: a taxonomy. And Bartsch did this for T.M.’s little prints. He classified Rembrandt for the world forever. Bartsch and the 18th century categorical thinkers made the card catalog of the world, without which (listen up, millennials) we would have no Google.
T.M.’s prints have some value, but not the value of an Old Master 1640 etching that can go for $6,000. Later impressions (1800) go down in value to $600. A 19th century etching goes for $300. However, with the “B” written there, they are at least post-Bartsch’s category system of the early 19th century.
T.M. has a series of 12, which indicates a portfolio, generated for the public in the 1920-40s. Many of these were taken apart, framed and glazed because they leant an air of high culture and highbrow taste. A family could subscribe to such a series and have immediate class. If T.M. had the original portfolio, we would be talking around $500. She tells me they have been matted and framed, and perhaps cut, so the value is $50 or less per print.