The Dutch government has been criticised for moving ahead with the €175 million purchase of a Rembrandt self-portrait that has been linked to a tax haven, at a time when it is debating how to shore up the Covid-hit economy.
The Standard Bearer, privately owned since it was completed in 1636, was first offered for sale by the Rothschild family in 2018, but the French government declared it a national treasure and refused to issue an export licence. That refusal has since expired.
Influenced by Titian, the painting is regarded as the most important work by Rembrandt still in private hands, not least because it marked him out as an artist of real standing perhaps even of genius – and led directly to the commission for his masterpiece The Night Watch.
The wisdom of the purchase was raised, however, when independent senator Henk van Otten noted that the artwork would be purchased from a trust in the Cook Islands – whose holding company is based in St Vincent and the Grenadines, a well-known Caribbean tax haven.
“How does this purchase square with the policy of the Dutch government to combat tax avoidance,” Mr Van Otten asked newly appointed secretary of state for culture and media, Gunay Uslu.
Ms Uslu replied that all the appropriate due diligence had been done, including establishing that the person involved in the sale of the painting was the correct legal entity.
She said €150 million of the price would be paid by the state, while the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandt Association would pay the remaining €25 million.
The senate vote came as the newly appointed lower house debated the strategy of the new four-party coalition led by prime minister Mark Rutte to revitalise the economy – with spending power expected to fall by between €10 and €100 a month.
While the director of the Rijksmuseum, Taco Dibbits, described The Standard Bearer or “De Vaandeldrager” as “deeply rooted in Dutch history” and its purchase as “a triumph”, not everyone agrees.
Art critic Wieteke van Ziel said the purchase should never have gone ahead without a public debate.
She pointed out that the cost was 10 times the acquisitions budget of all Dutch museums put together – and more than enough to keep all Covid-stricken museums open.
Her comments led to a flurry of alternative suggestions on social media, including one that read: “Give all care workers €1,000 each instead.”