Inheriting a Rembrandt: A Rare Case of a Monopoly

Photo: deflam

We inherited several art works, including a Rembrandt etching—a portrait of an old man. Is it worth anything?? An art appraiser/detective hunted down its story. The print itself is new—pulled on highest-quality paper in the 1990s from Rembrandt’s plates. Apparently no prints were made in most of the 20th century. In the 1990s the plate’s owner pulled a small number, but none since, and none planned.

The owner has a monopoly on the plate and understands revenue maximization (there are essentially no variable costs): Pull just enough prints to have sufficient quantity to drive the price elasticity of demand to unity, but no more than that. Not only does his strategy gain him the most revenue, but it keeps the price of our print up in case we decide to sell it. This is a rare case where I benefit from monopoly!


I had this exact conversation with my wife when we got into collecting woodcuts a couple of years ago. I was surprised you could buy "original" art for well known, fine art. Until I understood the relevancy of what "original" stands for in this case.

All this is true of any artform that allows for reproduction depending on an original "mold", said mold offering a perfect control of supply.

On a related note, some artists who deal in installation art have patented their installations, driving the value all the way from the physical art itself to its concept and controlling in a different way its reproductibility.

Brad Hufford

Ah, the Rembrandt etchings. I had to comment because the owner of the original plates from 1938 to 1993 was Robert Lee Humber and his heirs. I live in a relatively small college town in eastern North Carolina, Greenville. Robert Lee Humber is probably the most famous product of our community. He was a scholar and lawyer who was living in Paris until the fall to the Nazi's. He had an interest in art and made many friendships within the art world while living in Paris. He bought almost the entire collection of known Rembrandt original plates and returned to North Carolina following the Nazi occupation. He was the driving force behind the founding of the North Carolina Museum of Art, where he lent them to hold. I believe his heirs sold the entire collection at auction in 1993. I am a local history buff, so I've read a little about Mr Humber who was an extraordinary man. He was a forceful advocate for world government. He inspired another set of etchings dear to North Carolinian's, the Louis Orr etchings of prominent landmarks across our great state. He became friends with Mr. Orr during his time in Paris.


Eric M. Jones.

At the risk of ruining my favorite auction site...try . Their art section frequently has boffo artwork at ultra-bargain prices, because it is donated by the kids cleaning out the parents' earthly treasures.

Better than frequently has art that is unattributed or "can't read signature" that will send you off on a long detective search. I have seen some amazing stuff go for little money.

And your purchases are tax deductible and go for a good cause.

S w e e t ....

Nick M

This is the case for anyone who sells photography prints (non-limited editions, at least).

Carlos Graf

Please help me understand this better. Why is the owner of the plate maximizing revenue by holding the supply where it meets elasticity 1? I would think he gets more revenue if once he is there, he sells more prints, even at lower prices. (no variable cost, any additional unit gives him additional revenue)
Of course it will hurt the value of all the previous prints, but not his revenue.

Thank you


Strictly speaking this is a durable goods monopolist, who perhaps also understands that his ability to charge high prices is hampered by the resale market.

Going Dutch

Don't the plates themselves degrade as more prints are made? That is another possible explanation for why the owner made only a limited run. The more prints he makes, the less his plate is worth.