Arts of Europe

Joos van Craesbeeck, The Coin Collector

The Coin Collector
Joos van Craesbeeck (Flemish, 1605/06–ca. 1660)
Oil on oak panel
15 3/4 x 13 9/16 inches
Gift of Louis Moss 1961-9-1

After a period of hibernation in our storage vaults, The Coin Collector by Joos van Craesbeeck is once again on display at KAM. Since it was given to the museum in 1961, this old master painting has left the confines of the museum several times, under authorized and unauthorized pretexts. Most notably, The Coin Collector was stolen in the 1960s and has been entrusted to professional conservators twice.

Theft in the 1960s
One night, in the spring of 1967, thieves broke into Krannert Art Museum and stole six paintings, including The Coin Collector. The robbery made national news. The headline of the Chicago Tribune read “U. OF I. PAINTINGS STOLEN” and notices appeared in papers as far away as Montgomery, Alabama. The FBI assisted university officials with their investigation but the thieves were never caught. Fortunately, all six paintings were recovered; the extensive news coverage must have made the robbers reconsider trying to sell the works. In 1969, unidentified individuals returned the paintings to the museum, much to everyone’s relief.

Champaign-Urbana Courier reports on 1967 theft of artwork at the University of Illinois

Unfortunately, the paintings did not return unscathed. They had been removed from their frames and handled improperly. As a result, they sustained minor scratches, dents, and abrasions. Museum staff sent the paintings to Alfred Jakstas, a Chicago-area conservator who made the damage largely undetectable to the naked eye. Two of the recovered paintings are currently on view in the Bow Gallery: Winslow Homer’s Cernay la Ville—French Farm and Dwight William Tryon’s Sunrise.

Conservation in the 1960s
The Coin Collector was returned with three small dents in the lower left corner of the oak panel, in the area where the man’s sleeve is painted. In 1969, Mr. Jakstas worked to remove discolored surface films and previous overpainting. He then applied a varnish layer to isolate the original surface from any new additions and filled the small dents with gesso. The dents were subsequently in-painted with reversible conservation pigments and another coat of varnish was applied. Finally, he covered the back of the panel with wax to help insulate it from fluctuations in humidity.

New Concerns in 2008
While conservation of The Coin Collector in 1969 addressed the minor surface damage caused by the careless thieves, by 2008 it had become apparent that more work was needed to resolve additional problems. The need for supplementary conservation is not surprising. Most old master paintings require periodic care and treatment; they are several hundred years old, after all.

Part of the problem was that The Coin Collector had been framed improperly, with retaining nails at the sides, not at the top and bottom. The painting is on an oak panel with a natural curvature—it needs to be able to swell and contract in response to changing humidity. Nails at the sides restricted this movement, creating stress and causing the panel to start to crack.

Joos van Craesbeck's The Coin Collector, before conservation (showing crazing in paint surface

In addition, in the almost 40 years since The Coin Collector was last conserved, small areas of flaking paint had appeared on the surface of the work. This paint needed to be secured with a gel medium before the panel could be reframed. Working to safeguard the painting until this work could take place, museum staff stored The Coin Collector, flat on a shelf, in a carefully controlled environment.

Recent Conservation (2015–2016)
Thanks to the expertise and generosity of conservator Barry Bauman and the Wilma Alston Fund, The Coin Collector is once again stable and suitable for exhibition. Starting in late 2015, Mr. Bauman worked to clean the surface of the panel to remove dirt and air pollution, using a non-phosphate pH-neutral detergent solvent.

Joos van Craesbeck's The Coin Collector, during conservation (treated versus untreated surface)

The varnish was also removed, as were all former areas of restoration work (the inpainted dents). Using a gelatin adhesive, the small areas of flaking paint were reset and the painting was varnished with a non-yellowing coating.

Joos van Craesbeck's The Coin Collector before and after comparison

Using conservation pigments, the small dents and old paint losses were retouched and a coating of non-yellowing spray varnish was applied. Finally, the oak panel was properly refitted in its frame and secured at the top and bottom, to allow it to respond to subtle changes in its environment.

With structural and aesthetic issues now resolved, visitors to KAM can once again appreciate this little gem of a painting in the Trees Gallery.

Subject and Attribution
The Coin Collector depicts an older man who is closely examining a large silver coin. Other coins are stacked on the lid of a box in the lower right corner, along with a piece of chalk that has been used to tally sums. Art historian Karolien de Clippel persuasively argues that this composition is an allegorical representation of greed, and that it is part of a series of paintings of the seven deadly sins, which are all represented as single figures engaging in seemingly everyday tasks. Therefore, this is painting depicts no innocent “coin collector” but rather a greedy miser who jealously hoards his capital.

When this painting was given to KAM in 1961, it was attributed to the Flemish artist Adriaen Brouwer (1605–1638). Brouwer studied with Frans Hals (1580–1666), who painted the fabulous portrait of Cornelius Guldewagen, which is also on view in the Trees Gallery. Late in his career, during the 1630s, Brouwer made works that resemble The Coin Collector: small-scale, sketchy paintings with a nearly monochrome palette of mostly earth pigments such as ochre, umber, and sienna.

However, this is not Brouwer’s work. The Coin Collector is the work of Joos van Craesbeeck (1605/06–ca.1660), a friend and student of Brouwer’s. It is a superb example of what is sometimes referred to as Flemish monochrome painting. To create it, Van Craesbeeck applied a thin layer of a mid-value earth pigment such as raw sienna to the gessoed panel. This gives the painting a warm orangish-brown tonality. He then loosely painted darker and lighter passages, such as the conical, burnt sienna hat and the brownish-white collar. The paint applied in mostly thin, transparent layers that convey the movement and speed of the artist’s hand. In some areas, Van Craesbeeck left the underlying layer of orangish-brown untouched (for instance, in the shadow under the brim of the hat or in the fingers lower on the hand) rather than working them up with additional layers of paint. In these areas, Van Craesbeek suggests forms rather than describing them. His rough, sketchy, and uneven brushstrokes have a rustic quality that compliments the subject. This unpretentious style lends the painting an air of ostensible simplicity and spontaneity, when in fact it required a fair amount of skill and planning.

Author: Maureen Warren, Curator of European & American Art
©2016 University of Illinois Board of Trustees

Karolien de Clippel, “C3.4 Avaritia (Giergheid)” in Joos van Craesbeeck (1605/06-ca.1660): een Brabants Genreschilder, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2006) vol. 1, 288-9.

Ibid., “Adriaen Brouwer, Portrait Painter: New Identifications and an Iconographic Novelty” in Simiolus, Vol. 30, No. ¾ (2003) pp. 196-216.

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