I have not been to the new Rijksmuseum yet.
I saw the documentary about its ten year renovation on television. I watched the opening ceremony on television too and I have heard from people who have been there that the museum is very beautiful. I am deliberately delaying my visit. I am feeling a bit uneasy because I know that they are still there, but not exactly where. I know that they will look at me, just as they did the first time. They will remind me of my promise and I will feel guilty, fall silent and won’t have a proper answer.
I know, I know, you don’t understand, but let me explain about my ‘Rembrandt connection’, well, not with him personally but with one of his paintings.
It happened nearly forty years ago, when I was fourteen years old. Almost every Sunday I would go alone by bus to the Rijksmuseum. I had a ‘Jeugdmuseumkaart’, a free entrance card to several Dutch museums especially for young people from 11 to 21 years. It cost only one guilder (about half a Euro!) and every year it came in a different colour.
A cheap bargain. Oh yes, those were the days! Let me show you the pink coloured one of 1975. It is still in my scrapbook as a memento of my curious experience that year.
Of course with a card like that you were not allowed to use the main entrance, oh no!
You had to enter through the back entrance, the quiet part of the museum. And with the quiet part I do not mean the exterior but very much the interior too! In those years the Asiatic Art section was housed there.
There were rarely any visitors and almost no museum guards. Why would anyone want to see, let alone steal this incomprehensible art? I would quickly sneak my way through small corridors, empty halls, narrow passageways, steep staircases and then hear voices as I approached the more lively front part of the Rijksmuseum. Suddenly there would be lots of people, most of them tourists, all wanting to see old Dutch master paintings, especially Rembrandt’s famous ‘Nachtwacht’ (The Night Watch).
During one of my visits in 1975 it happened.
I remember that it was a warm and sunny day and I felt tired of walking and with all the impressions. As I was not especially interested in old master paintings I walked around aimlessly and happened to enter an empty and quiet room. I sat down, looked up and saw them. The ‘Staalmeesters’ (Syndics of the Drapers' Guild) painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1662. Six stern-looking gentleman dressed in black, five with tall black hats.
Was it my imagination or did they really look at me? I felt... drowsy…
Suddenly I heard a loud voice: “Frederick? You may come in boy”. It was Frans Hendricksz. Bel addressing me. He was their servant and lived in the house. A few minutes ago he had opened the door downstairs for me. Slowly I pushed the polished oak door and entered the room. They looked inquisitively at me. Frans wearing his black ‘kalot’ (zucchetto) was standing in the center behind them. Volkert Jansz. Had risen from his chair and whispered to Willem van Doeyenburg; “This is the boy I told you about”. Willem had his hands on a book lying in front of him on the table. Aernout van der Mye, who was sitting next to him, was holding a page as if he had just been checking it.
A stern voice asked: “Well? Where is it?”
I felt small and uncomfortable. “At home, master.” Silence…
“Where did you find it?” Now I am sure this was Jochem de Neve.
“In a rabbit hole master…” They looked surprised.
“Where do you hide it?”
“I keep it in a wooden box master, ever since I found it three years ago”.
“Speak louder boy. When will you give back what belongs to us?”
I tried not to whisper and mumbled: “I… I don’t know master; soon I promise, soon”.
A long silence passed, then Frans Hendricksz. Bel spoke to me again: “Be gone boy, these gentlemen have work to do and remember: a promise is a promise”.
The heavy oak door closed with a loud bang and I … woke up.
I know, I know, this is not making any sense, but wait.
Three years earlier…
It was 1972 and I was walking with my mother, a friend and his dog not far from my home on the empty and desolate sand slopes put there long ago. You would no longer recognise this place because today the A10 motorway runs here and the economic heart of Amsterdam, the ‘Zuidas’ (South Axis) has totally covered up the empty landscape of my youth. Look at the pictures below taken from exactly the same spot in 1968 and 2013 and you will see what I mean.
It happened behind that tree line on the far right in the picture above. I had my shovel with me. I desperately wanted to be an archaeologist. As a child I didn’t play or like football as normal kids did at my age, oh no. I liked to read about dinosaurs, collect animal bones, coins, antique stuff, to dig in the ground and read history books. Anyway, I was poking around in a rabbit hole with my shovel when something dropped out of its roof. It was round and heavy and looked like it was made of lead. I could see an inscription on it, the insignia of Amsterdam and two dates: 1669 and on the other side 1674. I immediately realised that this was important: “Look ma what I have found! Oh I’m so happy, so happy.”
A few weeks later my mother and I visited the Amsterdam Museum where I met Michiel Jonker (1948-2014), the deputy curator. I think he found me amusing. Reluctantly I left my precious treasure with him for research and to have pictures taken of it. A few weeks later I received his letter.
For me to posses a museum piece at the age of eleven was far more interesting than a motorcycle I was not yet allowed to drive for another seven years!
Thirty years later…
I was in a bookshop and it was by accident that I leafed through the annual bulletin of the Amsterdam Bureau for Monuments & Archeology 2003. No, I had not become an archeologist but instead studied history. Suddenly I saw a familiar black and white picture. An illustrated article by Wiard Krook on sixteenth and seventeenth century Amsterdam lead textile seals ("Staalloden. Zestiende- en zeventiende- eeuwse Amsterdamse textielkeuren", p. 45-53). Yep, there was my treasure and according to Wiard’s text still an important textile seal!
I smiled when I read in his article; ‘Found in 1974 by an ‘Amsterdammer’ in his garden!’. Wrong year, wrong place. We lived in an apartment with a five square meters concrete balcony!
The annual is in my library now and the lead textile seal? It is in the same wooden box where I put it over forty years ago. It is a shame that it very rarely sees daylight and I feel more and more the need to donate it to the Amsterdam Museum as such an important historical artifact should be in a public collection, accessible to everyone, instead of being locked away in a wooden box.
I am grown up now and no longer afraid of Rembrandt’s painting ‘Syndics of the Drapers' Guild’. I had this dream, my 'Rembrandt connection', only once and a long time ago, but whenever I see these stern gentlemen dressed in black I still feel a little uneasy and guilty.
Is it my imagination or is Frans Hendricksz. Bel really whispering to me: “Remember: a promise is a promise…”