There are those among us who, for some reason, just cannot resist going to auctions, garage sales, yard sales, or whatever the merchandising venue, in hopes of finding a rare bargain. And, indeed, there are afloat, just enough rags-to-riches stories of some fortunate bargain-hunter stumbling upon a valuable antique or work of art to whet the appetite of even the most jaded "K-Mart shopper" in favour of such daring forays into the land of flotsam and jetsam. Too bad for these folks today that they were not alive in the summer of 1657, strolling along St. Anthoniesbreestraat, in Amsterdam, pausing at the De Keyser's Kroon tavern to see what all the excitement was about. In the square out front, there was stacked all manner of fine furniture, paintings, collectibles, costumes, antiques, and household items for the curious to poke through as a Dutch auctioneer did his best to incite the townspeople into a buying frenzy.
There were bargains to be had. It was a bankruptcy sale, and the impecunious debtor was an artist. Dozens of his paintings were being auctioned off to the highest bidder at prices that today would make art collectors want to cry. On top of that, this artist was a collector of fine art himself. Among the 363 items he was being forced to part with were paintings by the likes of Raphael, Giorgione, van Eyck, and even a preparatory drawing in Titian's own hand for his Martyrdom of St. Peter (now in the Louvre). The whole lot brought 11,218 guilders (about $4,500), far short of the 20,000 guilders (about $8,100) needed to satisfy the creditors of the no longer fashionable Dutch artist, Rembrandt van Rijn.
It could have been worse. Following the death of his beloved wife, Saskia, Rembrandt was left to take care of his one-year-old son, Titus. In his wife's will, he inherited an endowment upon which he could have lived quite comfortably. But instead, he hired a nurse for his son and proceeded to carry on a scandalous affair with her which ended in his having her incarcerated in a reformatory for dissolute behaviour (whatever that might be). Following that, he took on another nurse, Hendrickje Stoffels, picked up where he left off, fathered a daughter, Cornelia, and proceeded to live lavishly beyond his means, which eventually ended in their being summoned into court for concubinage. (They had chosen not to marry so as not to lose his entitlement in Saskia's will.) It was only by a convoluted legal manoeuvre on the part of his son, Titus, who died in 1668, leaving his share of his mother's property to Hendrickje and Cornelia, that Rembrandt was able to avoid joining the ranks of the homeless.