I’ve been going to the Unique Thrift down Halsted from my place regularly since I moved to Bridgeport a year and a half ago. In the last few months I was mostly looking for frames I could use for the portrait show I just put up. More often than not, the artwork I remove before reusing these frames is forgettable, but the other day I stumbled on a Rembrandt. It was signed and everything. I didn’t really need any more frames but curiosity got the better of me. It was marked $4.99 but that Saturday was half-price day so I paid only $2.74 tax included.
When I got home I popped the print out of the frame. The backing was water-damaged and the paper had spotting, but there was an indentation to indicate that at the very least it was printed from a plate rather than copied digitally, so I scanned it in and emailed an image to my friend Mark, who’s a curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute. I knew enough to be under no illusion about this find. For one thing, Rembrandt didn’t sign his prints in pencil with the date the way mine was signed, for another, the paper was obviously at least a couple hundred years too new. Still, this was a lot more interesting-looking than the average machine-produced color copy which is passed off as a print these days.
On the back of the print was a stamped name and address in Rotterdam, Holland. A Google search turned up a couple auction records of prints from the 1920s and not much else. Mark emailed me back suggesting I forward my query to a colleague who works on Rembrandt to figure out whether what I had was an original etching or a photogravure (a forerunner of modern photocopying).
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 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 which I have little control over.
When a piece of art ends up in a thrift store it has gone the entire length and breadth that a consumer item can go 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. It might sound macabre 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.
I don’t know whether my $2.74 Rembrandt is worth any more than what I paid for it or whether it’s “authentic” to any degree. I also don’t know whether a painting I sold for $1000 is any better than one I got $10 for. Whatever price you pay, if you think enough of a picture to decorate your home with it, it must be worth something.