I’ve been regularly going to Unique Thrift on South Halsted Street ever since I moved to Bridgeport a year and a half ago. During the last few months I’ve been looking for frames I could use for a recent showing of my paintings. More often than not the artwork I remove before reusing these frames is forgettable—cutesy animal prints, hotel art, et cetera—but the other day I stumbled on a Rembrandt print. Titled Six’s Bridge and dating to 1645, it was about six inches by eight inches and portrayed a bridge above a little river, with a sailboat off to the right and a couple trees on the left. A pretty innocuous little picture, but it was signed and dated. Curiosity got the better of me. The print was marked at $4.99, but that Saturday was half-price day, so I paid only $2.74, tax included.
When a piece of art ends up in a thrift store it has gone the entire mercantile and psychic distance that a consumer item can travel in our society. Someone made it and marketed it to someone who bought it and took it home, then they either resold it or kept it in their home until their death, at which point some unlucky relative was charged with carting off their unwanted belongings to the thrift store. For the most part, artwork found in a thrift store is no longer wanted; it’s appearance on the shelves means that someone gave it away. It might sound morbid, but I’ve always hoped to find one of my own paintings on the shelves at Unique or Salvation Army—it would be a sign that something I made went through the culture, in a manner of speaking.
When I arrived at home I popped the print out of the frame. The backing was water damaged and the paper was spotted in places, but there was an indentation to indicate that it was printed from a plate rather than copied digitally. I scanned it and e-mailed it to my friend, Mark Pascale, who’s a curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute.
I knew enough to not expect much from this find. For one thing, Rembrandt didn’t sign his name and the date with a pencil on his prints—I’d been taught back in art school that this practice didn’t begin until sometime in the 19th century; for another, the paper was obviously at least a couple hundred years too new.
Still, what I had looked a lot more interesting than the average machine-produced color copy that’s passed off as a print these days. On the back of the Rembrandt was a stamped name, “Wim Beeke,” and an address in Rotterdam. A Google search turned up a couple auction records of prints from the 1920s and not much else. Pascale e-mailed me back suggesting I bring my print into the museum to figure out whether what I had is an original etching or a photogravure (a forerunner of modern photocopying).
Prints pulled from the original etching plate are obviously the most valuable. As reproduction techniques evolved over the centuries, Rembrandt’s and other artists’ works were distributed in a variety of ways, but while each technological innovation made the pictures more accessible, each iteration was deemed less and less valuable by connoisseurs.
In the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute, Pascale examined my discovery. He confirmed my suspicion that the print is probably from the 20th century—not from 1645, as indicated in the lower right-hand corner. Looking through the museum’s catalog, Pascale was able to locate a version printed from the original plate, made during the artist’s lifetime, and brought it out so we could compare the two. Aside from differences in paper and subtle nuances of etching technique and quality, my print was actually a bit smaller than the genuine article, which meant that mine couldn’t have been printed from the Rembrandt’s original plate. Pascale couldn’t find any further information about Wim Beeke of Rotterdam, so we still don’t know for sure when precisely my item was made.
The question of what any artwork is really worth is practically unanswerable. Or, rather, it has endless answers. As an artist, more often than not, the value of my own work is whatever I can get for it on a given day. That varies according to who the buyer is, how broke I am, and many other factors that are out of my control. But when a print is signed “Rembrandt” instead of “Samarov” or some other unknown artist, there’s instantly an assumption of inherent value.
It’s likely that my thrift-store treasure was produced for tourists or the home-decorator market—the equivalent of a nice poster someone would buy at a museum gift shop. I don’t know whether my $2.74 Rembrandt is worth any more today than what I paid for it. I also don’t know whether a painting I sold for $1,000 is any better than one that got me $10. Whatever price you pay, if you think enough of a picture to decorate your home with it, it must be worth something.