140. Grandmother’s Rembrandt

By Peter Fraenkel

Yes, we had a Rembrandt in the family – a modest one, I have to admit:  a little etching no larger than a postal envelope: two old ladies in conversation on a park bench.

How come? Grandmother Sophie had a large circle of old ladies – all German speaking, all Jewish or part-Jewish or married to Jews – almost all of them widowed. They used to meet for coffee and cake and gossip.  Among them was the widow of an important Berlin art dealer. I don’t remember her name – but it was something not unlike Halberstaetter, so that is what I shall now call her.  After her husband’s death she had continued to run the business so I may not be exaggerating when I say she had, herself been an important Berlin art dealer. My grandmother had, apparently, given her great moral support when her husband died. A little later my grandmother had what she used to call an “important birthday” – perhaps 75 or even 80.

Mrs Halberstaetter came for coffee and brought that little etching as a present. “Note the signature,” she said, “it’s a Rembrandt.”   It wasn’t one of the etchings where hundreds of prints were circulated. It carried a low number – 12 or something like it. Nor had it ever been reengraved later to make more copies. Probably Rembrandt had himself decided it wasn’t worth such attention.  But grandmother would show it off proudly “my Rembrandt!”

When grandmother died – aged 97 – I was at the other side of the world, in England.  It was several years before I next visited South Africa.  I went to see cousin Catherine. I recognised some bits of furniture that had come from grandmother’s house. I looked at the pictures on her wall: “Where is the Rembrandt?” I asked.

“What Rembrandt?” asked my cousin.

Grandmother had been seriously demented in her last years so, I discovered, my cousin had never learnt that this insignificant little etching was worth preserving.  It had, it seems, been thrown out as worthless.

I don’t suppose it was ever worth a fortune.  but something in me still mourns the loss of “our Rembrandt.”