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RM24011 – Rembrandt’s insolvency

In memory of Arnoud Noordam (23 May 1965 – 1 May 2024)

1          Rembrandt’s cessio bonorum

In the first half of the 17th century, Amsterdam was an economically vibrant city. Trade and shipping earned the city a lot of money. The first signs of economic stagnation only appear after about five decades when a general economic downturn followed the Peace of Münster in 1648. The First Anglo-Dutch War from 1652 to 1654 may have been fought on the seas, it certainly had its economic consequences. However, the general decline in the economy was not the only explanation for Rembrandt’s weak financial position, let alone the cause.

In his well-known 2006 study on Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, Crenshaw found enough evidence to present three causes that led artists (like Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer) to be in such abysmal financial shape that bankruptcy resulted. These were: (i) failed investments and work ‘on the side’; (ii) personal circumstances, including health concerns, family scandals and legal issues; and (iii) personal indebtedness, primarily as a result of general economic adversity. Crenshaw (2006), 20ff.

In July 1656, Rembrandt requested a court to grant him ‘cessio bonorum’, or assignment or cession of an estate; ‘boedelafstand’ in Dutch. The Latin name ‘cessio bonorum’ demonstrates that it is already an ancient legal concept. Most contemporary authors believe that cessio bonorum in Roman times was (originally) a favour that only benefited the debtor who had acted in good faith, i.e. a ‘non-fraudulent’ debtor, sometimes also referred to as a debtor ‘without guilt’.

Let’s take a brief look at the legal system in those days, some 400 years ago. And then we’ll consider Rembrandt’s request for ‘cessio bonorum’.

2          Legal system in the Low Countries

During the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands there was no unity of law or a unity of justice within and across the regions (such as Friesland, Holland or Zeeland). Even within the provinces themselves, no unity of law existed. These regions each had their own legislation (placards and ordinances) as well as their own judicial organization, tax rates, tolls, coinage, universities and other signs of sovereignty.

In Holland, insolvency law was something of a legal melting pot. It included canon law and Roman law, legislative collections like the Great Placard books, collections of jurisprudence, opinions of legal authors and the publications of Hugo de Groot (also known as Grotius). In the city of Amsterdam, an Ordinance dated 1643 applied to insolvency matters. This mixed legal system of law in Holland resulted from the development and growth of an uncoordinated set of rules and principles, also referred to as Roman-Dutch law, a term still used today in South Africa.

The flourishing trade in Antwerp in the second half of the 16th century and the accompanying increase in transactions, necessitated a more practical, non-criminal and non-moral approach to matters concerning financial distress and insolvency. The laws of Antwerp, the so-called Antwerp Costumen of 1587, had already established an extensive arrangement to deal with fugitive and insolvent persons (‘de fugitive ende insolvente personen’) (18 articles) and the preferences of creditors (‘vande preferentie van de crediteuren’) (50 articles).

Legal historians accept that for the city of Amsterdam, when it came to both company law and insolvency law, these Antwerp Costumen applied as subsidiary law. It did so for those cases for which local law (e.g. the Amsterdam Ordinance of 1643) or custom had no provisions. Interestingly, on 20 June 1638, the Court of Holland, Zeeland, and West-Friesland, decided that these Costumen of the city of Antwerp should be introduced ‘… in our territory and other countries, where trade and business prevail’ (‘… dat de selve Costumen in patria nostra en andere landen, daer de negotie en koopmanschap vigeren’).

The cessio bonorum procedure as an insolvency measure was given a ‘Holland twist’. In Holland, the well-known jurist Grotius (Hugo de Groot) presented his view on cessio bonorum. In his book ‘Inleydinge’ (Introduction; being the short title), he described the assignment of the estate (‘boedelafstand’) as follows: ‘The renunciation of the estate is a blessing that was acquired from the high government, where a debtor was freed from prison, and he also is not obliged to pay his debts to the extent they have to be settled from what he needs for his indigence.’

The Amsterdam Ordinance of 1643, and the same goes for the second Ordinance of 1659, which came into legal effect three years after the date of Rembrandt’s application for cessio bonorum, contains identical regulations with regard to cessio bonorum. And the procedure generally reflects De Groot’s description. De Groot elucidates: ‘We say a blessing from the high government: …’ (‘Wij zeggen weldaed van de hooge overheid: …’). This high government initially concerned the Grand Court of Mechelen (‘Grooten Raad van Mechelen’), then from 1573 the Court of Holland (Hof van Holland) and from 1582 the High Court (‘Hooge Raad’), which then became the highest court in Holland and Zeeland. It is located in The Hague.

As to its procedural aspects, the request for cessio bonorum (‘beneficie van cessie’) was a remedy that was granted by the High Court, but which still needed ratification (‘interinement’) from a local court. The debtor commenced with a request (or application) to the High Court, stating the name and place of residence of the creditors.Cessio bonorum could only be requested by the debtor himself. The Court then asked the administration of the respective city for advice.In this case this was done by Iman Cau (1601-1683), a lawyer, who had been a clerk (‘griffier’) at the High Court since 1643.

The Court granted letters of assignment (‘brieven van cessie’) with the order to the local court for ratification. After these letters had been issued, an insolvency administrator (or bankruptcy trustee) was immediately appointed to sequestrate (‘bewaring’) the estate and the debtor could no longer be committed for failure to comply with a judicial order (‘gijzeling’). The debtor then had to summon the creditors to confirm the letters of assignment. On the first day in court, the debtor had to hand over a State and Inventory (‘Staat en Inventaris’) in person. The defendant’s creditors had the right to contradict this on the ground that the transferee had traded fraudulently (‘bedrieglijken handel’). In addition, the creditors could request that the debtor be detained.

Grotius stated that the requests of debtors who had left or gone into hiding, having moved or taken away any goods, were not admissible. Inadmissibility also applied, according to De Groot, to others who had acted unfaithfully, or had filed their application to escape obligations they were able to perform (‘… ofte die zulcks verzoecken om te ontgaen voldoeninge van iet dat bestaet in een daed ’t welck in haer macht is, …’).

As an interesting historical note, I refer to doctoral literature by my PhD candidate Arnout Noordam from 2007. He showed that this requirement to act in good faith was the historical origin of the present-day requirement in the Dutch Bankruptcy Act for a private debtor acting in good faith to be eligible for a formal debt restructuring proceeding (‘Wet schuldsanering natuurlijke personen’). It was introduced in 1998.

[Copy taken from Strauss/Van der Meulen (1979), p. 344]

3 Rembrandt’s application for cessio bonorum

The text of Rembrandt’s application for cessio bonorum is as follows:

‘To the High Court
Rembrant van Rijn, residing in Amsterdam, respectfully acknowledges that he, the applicant, due to losses suffered in business, as well as damages and losses at sea, has come into so much difficulty that it is impossible for him to pay his creditors, and therefore these creditors namely Burgomaster Cornelis Witsen, Isaacq van Hersbeecq, Mr Daniel Francen, Gerbrandt Ornia, Hiskia van Vuijlenburch, Geert Dircx, Gerrit Boelissen, and others should take this into consideration, the situation being that he is exposed to surprise threats by the aforementioned, for which reason the applicant is obliged to address himself to Your Hon. Magistracy and humbly petition for letters of cessio, the jurisdiction to be transferred to the Amsterdam Court’,
Signed by H. Geltsack 1656

The term ‘committimus’ Less than a month after the application for cessio bonorum (on 14 July 1656), and some two weeks after the appointment of Henricus Torquinius as administrator (‘curateur’) (on 26 July 1656), the High Court of Holland granted Rembrandt’s application for cessio bonorum and the transfer of jurisdiction (‘committimus’) to the Court of Amsterdam on 8 August 1656. means ‘we order’. This means that a person cannot be taken to court on a legal matter for which a special judge has jurisdiction. This judge then examines the merits of the case or request and takes a decision.

Generally speaking, the legal consequences of cessio bonorum are:

1 After surrender of the goods and the sales of all goods, the monies received pay off the creditors. Any remaining claims (debts) are not forgiven; cessio bonorum does not result in debt discharge.

2 It keeps the debtor out of the dungeon (‘uit de kerker’).

3 The proceeding is afforded with privilege of indigence (‘voorrecht van nooddruft’).

4          Position of Titus, his guardian and his will

Rembrandt being declared insolvent affected the position of his son Titus. After all, Titus is 15 years old and together with Rembrandt he is entitled to the inheritance of his mother Saskia who had died 14 years earlier, in 1642. To protect Titus’ position, one month after the Amsterdam court had been given jurisdiction in the cessio bonorum case, on 6 September 1656, the Orphan Chamber appointed Jan Verwout as Titus’ guardian (‘voocht’) and administrator of his assets (‘… ende tot administrateur over des selffs goederen’). Verwout was instructed to act for the benefit of Titus’ rights and justice, to promote these and be accountable for these, as well as to administer his possessions in the best and most proper manner. A year and a half later, on 4 April 1658, the Orphan Chamber appointed Louis Crayers to succeed Jan Verwout as guardian of Titus, following Verwout’s death. From now on, Louis Crayers would become a central figure in Rembrandt’s legal and financial life over a period that lasted more than ten years.

5          Amsterdam’s insolvency law         

The High Court ordered the case to be dealt with in Amsterdam. Insolvency law (‘faillietenrecht’) was city (‘stedelijk’) law. Originally, insolvency law, in Amsterdam and other cities, mainly focussed on the penalties for being ‘bankrupt’, while the interests of creditors were ignored. Since no archives or documentation exist, it is unclear when the aldermen in Amsterdam for the first time took on a form of responsibility for a ‘desolate’ estate, administered by the Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvent Estates (‘Desolate Boedelskamer’). However, the aldermen themselves delegated tasks to special colleges of commissioners. Examples are Chambers for marital affairs and injuries (1578), for minor cases (1611), for insurance cases and damage (1612) and for maritime affairs (1641). In 1643, the activities of aldermen in bankrupt estates were also transferred to a college of commissioners, the Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvent Estates. The Amsterdam City council (‘Vroedschap’) had already decided in 1627 to establish a Chamber of desolate estates. Messrs Hinlopen, Hudde and Schaep were instructed to compile a draft ordinance for its functioning. It is unclear why this ordinance containing18 articles was only published some 16 years later, on 6 November 1643.

In Rembrandt’s case, the application for cessio bonorum was made to the High Court in The Hague on 14 July 1656. It was then sent to the Amsterdam mayors for advice (on the same day). Following the reply, the letters of cessio were granted by the High Court three weeks later on 8 August 1656, with the transfer of jurisdiction to Amsterdam. However, two weeks earlier, on 26 July 1656, the Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvent Estates had appointed a ‘curateur’, an administrator, Mr Torquinius. In the light of today’s laws, this is curious – being appointed by a public-private agency, not by the court itself, at a time when the application before that court was still pending. Indeed, the whole procedure seems to have been conducted at great speed – within three weeks – at a time when communication of course was far slower than our digital reality today.

[Fragment of copy of original appointment by the Amsterdam Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvency Estates of the appointment of Mr Henricus Torquinius as administrator (‘curateur’) of the estate of Rembrandt; Source: Strauss/Van der Meulen (1979), p. 346]

6          Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvent Estates

Torquinius’ appointment as ‘curateur’ was made in the presence of the commissioners Messrs Nicolaes Pancras, Pellegrom ten Grootenhuijs and Jan van Hellemont. There were five commissioners at the ‘Boedelskamer’ and they were appointed every year. Those who held office in 1656 were the three persons named: Nicolaes Pancras (1622-1678), who was a member of the City Council (‘Vroedschap’), Pellegrom ten Grootenhuis (1618-1660), a merchant trading with Spain, and Jan van Hellemont (1616-1665), a lawyer. The other two were Conrad van Burgh (1619-1678), a former magistrate, and Nicolaes van Waveren (1622-1684). The commissioners met daily at the Town Hall (now the Royal Palace on Amsterdam’s Dam Square) in a specific chamber reserved for them. The secretary of the ‘Desolate Boedelskamer’ was Frans Bruijningh (1610-1684). He was in overall charge of making an inventory and taking it into custody.

After ‘cessio bonorum’ had been granted, the debtor was expected to come to an arrangement with his creditors (‘… om met hare Crediteuren te accordeeren’).Such an arrangement had to be made within six weeks, during which time it was not possible to litigate with regard to selling any goods (‘… zonder te procedeeren tot verkoopinghe van eenighe goederen’). The period could be extended at the discretion of the Chamber. In Rembrandt’s case, in the absence of an arrangement (since no record of a meeting of creditors had been kept and no deed of arrangement had been documented), the first sale of Rembrandt’s possessions was held in September 1656.

7          Causes for the application for cessio bonorum

Let’s return to Rembrandt’s application for cessio bonorum. 

Previously in the literature, Crenshaw had submitted that the value of Rembrandt’s assets, insofar as they were invested in art and art objects, had dropped due to the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) and the blockade by the English. This had caused the value of luxury goods, including art, to plummet (Crenshaw (2006), 163ff.). These observations may help to set the scene, but they are of little relevance. The status of a person’s capital (its composition and size) cannot serve as a criterion for testing lack of liquidity or financial distress. Available legal measures related to insolvency (to be initiated by creditors or by the debtor) are related to a person’s liquidity position. Liquidity indicates the extent to which a debtor is able to meet his current payment obligations.

Cessio bonorumwas essentially a legal means to avoid being imprisoned for outstanding debts. The imprisonment of a debtor in the event of non-payment was quite common in medieval and early-modern North-West Europe.

The reasons for Rembrandt’s application for cessio bonorum, are set out in his request. His lawyer, Mr Geltsack, stated in the application of 14 July 1656 that Rembrandt had come into financial difficulties ‘… due to losses suffered in business, as well as damages and losses at sea’. The Dutch text says: ‘door verliesen geleden in de negotie alsmede schade ende verliesen bij der zee’. Another reason given in the application was that Rembrandt had expressed that he was being threatened with capture by his creditors (‘wert gedreijcht … te sullen werden overvallen’).

8          Three causes mentioned

Let’s take a closer look at these three reasons/causes below:

(i) losses suffered in business;

(ii) damages and losses at sea; and

(iii) the threat of being captured.

(i) As to the losses suffered in business, the Dutch text uses the word ‘negotie’, which generally means ‘trade’. Did Rembrandt indeed trade in art? Or did this refer to his business in general – for example, a lack of new commissions, or a lack of pupils? Another possibility is that he may have invested in ships or have had a share in a company of cargo ships and that the results of their travels at sea had been disappointing. Indeed Bredius (Bredius (1913), 72), submits that ‘negotie’ expresses trade in paintings, although he indicates that it is more likely that the losses resulted from unfortunate speculation, especially in the affreightment of ships. Bob Haak (Haak (1969), 275) writes that Rembrandt: ‘… had speculated in overseas trade’. However, both Bredius and Haak do not provide any evidence.

(ii) Damages and losses at sea might refer to the loss of Rembrandts own paintings or other work which could have been damaged during transport at sea or even lost in a shipwreck. In those days the term ‘sea’ included the water between Amsterdam and Friesland, or between Amsterdam and the city of Hoorn, presently known as the IJsselmeer, now a lake. Merchants frequently failed in their business, especially those who traded abroad and were dependent on sea transport, and the risks involved were substantial. Damage and in particular cargo lost due to storms, piracy or other causes, and protested bills of exchange, often caused major financial losses. A few serious blows in succession could therefore be fatal for merchants who were less wealthy.

This is all mere speculation, however, as we do not know this for certain. Arnoud Noordam, my former PhD candidate to whom I referred earlier, provided a very lawyerish explanation: ‘losses at sea’ would be just a standard sentence in a standard form that was used in those days (Noordam (2007), no. 134). Dutch historian Bosman (Bosman (2019), 108), interestingly, has conducted a review of 231 applications for cessio bonorum, by debtors from Amsterdam, between 1654 and 1659. He has found that the text of Mr Geltsack’s application was copied word for word from the application of the Portuguese merchant Aaron Mendes three months earlier. He concludes that Rembrandt’s text was not original, however Bosman also notes that he has not come across it more often. It is still not uncommon for lawyers to use such boilerplates.

(iii) Finally, the threat of being captured perhaps relates to the difficulties in Rembrandt’s relationship with Geertje Dircx. I told you about her in my podcast RM204009 (go to www. She had ultimately been imprisoned for five years in the Spinhuis in Gouda and was released 14 days prior to Rembrandt’s application, on 31 May 1655. Was she threatening to have Rembrandt imprisoned, because he did not pay the alimony? I’ll return to this possibility in a moment.


9 Creditors

Let’s first take a look at the creditors. The creditors named in Rembrandt’s application are the following persons (with the amount of their claim beside their names):

– Cornelis Witsen (f 4180 interest free since 29 January 1653);

– Isaac van Hertsbeeck (f 4000 at 5% 14 March 1653);

– Daniel Francen (f 3150 since 30 May 1653);

– Gerrit Boelens (f 848);

– Gerbrandt Ornia (f 1000 deriving from his having been the guarantor of the loan from Jan Six of 7 March 1653); and;

– Geertje Dircx (annuity f 160).

[Bartholomeus van der Helst, De overlieden van de Kloveniersdoelen/The regents of the Kloveniersdoelen, 1655; Amsterdam Museum. On the left hand side: Cornelis Witsen]

A 7th creditor mentioned in the application is Rembrandt’s sister-in-law Hiskia Uylenburgh. There is, however, no evidence for any debt he owed to his sister-in-law.

This list of seven names in the application for cessio bonorum ends with ‘and others’ (‘en anderen’). Bosman notes that as far as is known, Rembrandt was referring to Nanning Cloeck, Isaac Vrancx, Jacob de la Tombe and Gerbrecht Schuyrmans. The latter is in fact a woman, namely Gerbracht Barents, who was married to Barent Schuerman and ran the inn called the Keizerskroon.

And his son Titus as a creditor? In the application Titus is not mentioned, which is strange as he is, after all, a creditor of Rembrandt for his part of Saskia’s estate. In podcast RM24010 (see www., I already told you in relation to ‘transferring the house to Titus’ that ‘bewijzen’ of the house to Titus cannot be considered as a payment of a debt which Rembrandt had towards Titus based on the inheritance position. Instead, it must be understood as an act of conditional division and allocation of a part in the joint property (‘scheiding en deling’). Titus’ claim on his father was protected by a security right which was established by way of law (‘legaal hypotheek’). However, I’ve found no source that indicates that the holder of a security right was not to be treated as a (secured) creditor when filing an application for cessio bonorum.

And what about Thijs as a creditor, the seller of the house 17 years ago? Thijs is not mentioned either. The house was purchased in 1639 for 13,000 guilders. Fourteen years later, from 1 February 1653, Thijs started to collect the remainder of the purchase price, being 8,470.16 guilders. Why did it take Thijs 14 years to collect his outstanding claim?

Various explanations have been given in the literature. In 2019, Bikker (Bikker (2019), p. 143) suggested that the most likely reason for Thijs demanding payment was the economic malaise he found himself in, brought on by the First Anglo-Saxon Dutch War. It seems more likely that Thijs’ actions were sparked by the consequences of major repairs on the house of Rembrandt’s neighbour, Daniel Pinto. Pinto had ordered structural changes to the foundations of his house, which affected also Rembrandt’s house that was directly adjacent. The latter’s unwillingness to pick up part of the bill, might have caused Pinto to drag the owner Thijs into the legal conflict. Whatever the explanation, Thijs is not mentioned in the application and the reason for this omission is uncertain.

10        InventORY

[Fragment of copy of English translated inventory; Source: Strauss/Van der Meulen (1979), p. 349]

Over a two-day period, on 25 and 26 July 1656, Frans Bruijningh, the secretary of the Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvent Estates, drew up an inventory of the paintings together with the furniture and household goods belonging to Rembrandt van Rijn’s estate (‘Inventory van de schilderijen mitsgaders meubilen ende huysraet bevonden in den boedel van Rembrant van Rijn’). The list contains 19 pages, with 363 indented lines, some containing several items, all located in 13 rooms. Over time, this inventory has come to be regarded as a superior source of research for art historians. Moreover, the 1656 inventory provides an indication of the layout of the house and how it was used at that time. It also becomes clear that Rembrandt was a collector, and that part of his art collection was probably also intended as trading stock. By the way, Giltaij (Giltaij (2018), 12) writes that when the inventory was made, Rembrandt, Hendrickje, Titus and Cornelia had already moved.

11        Other assets

The inventory, though fairly extensive, does not seem to give a complete picture of what must have belonged to Rembrandt’s estate on 25 and 26 July 1656. Where the inventory is such a fine collection of all possible goods, the lawyer in me had his own queries. I have three observations to make here that are related to (i) the jurisdiction of the Chamber, and (ii) the description of the inventory itself.

(i) As to the jurisdiction of the Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvent Estates.

a. The Chambre had jurisdiction regarding an estate within the territory of the city of Amsterdam, or sometimes called the Chamber’ jurisdictional territory (‘insolventen Boedel binnen deser State, ofte ‘t resort van dien’). See Article 4 Instruction 1643. Although no supporting evidence exists, perhaps certain art objects or works in progress were located elsewhere within the Amsterdam jurisdiction, outside the house on the Breestraat, or were perhaps in the hands of an agent assigned to sell Rembrandt’s work.

b. Furthermore, the inventory should allow and enable all assets, securities and outstanding debts (‘alle de goederen, effecten ende uytstaende schulden’), located outside the jurisdiction of this city and the countries (‘buyten de Jurisdictie van dese Stadt, ende Landen zijnde’) to be included in the estate. See Article 4 Instruction 1643. No documents have been found to verify whether such ‘extra-territorial’ assets existed.

c. There are no indications either that Rembrandt (based on received course fees, which could add up to 2500 guilders per year, according to Von Sandrard) also invested in real estate, land or securities.

One transaction was recorded that dates from around two years after the date of application for cessio bonorum, around July 1658. It recorded the purchase by the Elector Palatine (Heidelberg) of several plaster statues (in German: ‘… und erkauffte unterscheidliche Statuen von Gipswerck an Rymbrandt van Ryn zaalen lassen’) , ordered by Henrich van der Burgh (in German: ‘durch Henrich van der Burgh bestelt’) and paid by him (price unknown) to Rembrandt. The question is whether under the cessio bonorum regime, a debtor/businessman had the right (with or without permission from the administrator) to sell goods (listed on the inventory or created after the date of application) and what the destination of the money received should be. In any case, it is clear that the size of what actually belonged to the estate in legal terms cannot be determined with any real certainty.

(ii) As to the inventory.

a. A next observation concerns the description of the inventory itself. For example, it didn’t include printing plates and Rembrandt’s own prints, painter’s tools and etching materials as well as clothing. In addition, it wouldn’t be surprising if several items had disappeared by the time the inventory was taken (Rembrandt had previously held an auction which lasted several weeks) or that goods were not listed for whatever reason. Perhaps Rembrandt had pawned works of art or, for instance, etching plates, so that these are not listed in the inventory. Have any items been hidden from Bruijningh’s view?

b. The inventory itself seems to be limited to movable property, located in Rembrandt’s house at that time, and no paintings or etchings ‘in transitu’, on transport to clients elsewhere. Preferably, other known goods would have had to be included in the list of assets, which may have been the case; such a list, however, is not documented. As indicated, any works in progress seem to be absent, whilst Gary Schwartz for instance simply refuses to believe that Rembrandt did not own more than the 22 books mentioned in the inventory.

[Announcement by the administrator of the insolvent estate of Rembrandt of a public auction in the ‘Keizerskroon’ in the Kalverstraat, Amsterdam; Public sale placard, collection British Museum]

(iii) Goods owned by someone else.

A third and final observation relates to goods, which were owned (or claimed to be owned) by someone else. Not mentioned on the inventory list, for example, was a certain cupboard. This cupboard would form a golden thread throughout the remaining history of Rembrandt’s family life. Hendrickje Stoffels wished a cupboard (‘kas’, in current Dutch: kast) to be removed from the house, claiming it belonged to her. On 13 March 1658, she made an ownership claim to Torquinius, an attorney-at-law acting in his capacity of administrator (‘advocaet als curateur’) of Rembrandt’s estate, arguing preferential status (‘te disputeren in cas van preferentie’).

The Commissioners of the Chamber of the Abandoned and Insolvent Estates permitted the claimant to remove the oak cupboard, which was in Rembrandt’s house, upon her sworn statement – which she offered to submit – that this cupboard was her property (‘verclaeren deselve haer eijgen kas te weesen’). The Commissioners’ decision concludes: ‘Enacted and in presence of the above [Messrs Michiel Pancras, Cornelis Abba and Dirck Spiegel, commissioners]’.

Cornelis Dircksz Abba (1604-1675) was a wealthy brewer who resided on the Singel in a house called de Vijffhoeck (The Pentagon). He was commissioner of the Chamber of Marital Affairs for 25 years, and a trustee of the House of Correction, besides his term as commissioner of the Chamber during the time of Rembrandt’s financial difficulties. From 1658 to 1672 he also served as a captain of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in region XXII.

12        Why apply for insolvency?

Finally, a word about Rembrandt’s motives. Why did Rembrandt make his request exactly on the date of 14 July 1656. There are no documents that show his (unsecured) creditors were actively demanding their claims. The exception was Thijs, three years earlier, but he was not mentioned in the request.

Maybe the reason was Geertje Dircx. In the 1960s, Wijnman submitted that there is only one known fact that points at a claim being demanded. On 18 May 1656, Rembrandt instructed a notary, who lived close by, to take legal action against Geertje. Wijnman suggests that aldermen may have already passed judgment in the case between Geertje and Rembrandt, as a result of which Geertje had obtained a claim towards Rembrandt. This would explain, Wijnman continues, why in his request for cessio bonorum Rembrandt ranked Geertje among his six most important creditors; this may have been a problem because of the relatively small amount of alimony due to her. Perhaps Geertje’s claim had even accelerated Rembrandt’s request for cessio bonorum, realizing that Geertje’s non-preferential claim would become very doubtful.

Wijnman tries to read Rembrandt’s mind at the time, and suggests that Rembrandt had reasoned: ‘I will not get Geertje to pardon me. I’d rather go broke, I am overindebted anyway’, after which he submitted a request for cessio bonorum. It is indeed striking that Rembrandt’s petition to the High Court falls precisely in the middle or shortly after his procedural struggles with Geertje. Maybe, therefore, Geertje is one of Rembrandt’s creditors, being the ‘threat’ which is mentioned as the third cause in the application.

Maybe, Rembrandt had heard a rumour that some creditors were preparing to collect what was due to them? Was cessio bonorum publicized differently (less open) than other insolvency proceedings? Did cessio bonorum create a lower stigma of being financially unreliable than other insolvency proceedings? (assuming such a stigma existed in those days).

Here, again, a structural aspect of 17th century legal and historical research gets in the way: the imperfect, incomplete, lacunal and sometimes only minor or unreliable sources.

I know, it’s not very satisfying that there’s no clear answer. But that’s the fate of much research, especially legal-historical research. Highly satisfying for art historians indeed is Rembrandt’s inventory – a truly fantastic treasure trove, located throughout some 13 rooms and other spaces in the house. Is this inventory compete? Legal-historians are less pleased. The question whether the inventory contained all his assets needs, first, an answer to the question concerning the scope of jurisdiction of the Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvent Estates. Once this query is solved, the question then is whether all assets, securities and outstanding debts were included, and whether the inventory was complete. Should it not have also contained printing plates, painter’s tools, etching materials, and clothing? Were there really only 22 books? Were goods withheld from the eyes of the Chamber? We can’t fill in the gaps with our own imagination or fantasy. The facts must provide answers. In this case, we simply don’t know.


References mentioned or cited are available through the sources provided on

Kees Cappon, Failliet in de Gouden Eeuw (bespreking proefschrift Den Hollander), in: Pro Memorie 24.1 (2022), pp. 144-153

M. den Hollander, Stay of Execution. Institutions and Insolvency Legislation in Amsterdam. 1578-1700, PhD Tilburg University, 2021.

Maurits den Hollander, Failliet in de Republiek. Locale ordonnanties over de omgang met desolate boedels, cica 1643-1713, in: Pro Memorie 24.2 (2022), pp. 190-217.

Dave Deruysscher & Cornelis in ‘t Veld, Rembrandt’s insolvency: The artist as legal actor, in: 134 Oud Holland – Quarterly for Dutch Art History 2021, 9ff. / Machiel Bosman, Rembrandt’s insolvency: A critique, in: 135 Oud Holland – Quarterly for Dutch Art History 2022, 40ff. / Dave Deruysscher & Cornelis in ‘t Veld, Rembrandt’s insolvency: A reply, in: 135 Oud Holland – Quarterly for Dutch Art History 2022, 48ff.

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