Copies of prints have never been easier to identify than they are today. More and more museums (including Te Papa) are making high-resolution images of their collections available online, so that we can compare the prints in our collection with their counterparts across the world. This makes it possible even for students like myself (a newcomer to the world of print connoisseurship) to spot the differences between an original and a copy – even a very good one.
Since December, I’ve been lucky enough to work with Te Papa’s print collection as a Victoria University Summer Scholar. My job has been to study Te Papa’s eighty-nine Rembrandts (and eight copies), with the help of a magnifying glass, numerous museum websites and a copy of The New Hollstein (the latest seven-volume Rembrandt print scholar’s bible).  In the process, I’ve become almost more fascinated by the copies than by the Rembrandts themselves.
Faking the maker
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is one of the most-faked artists of all time. As early as 1635 (just a decade after Rembrandt first experimented with etching), copies of his prints began to appear in the Netherlands and abroad, with production peaking between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. From the late nineteenth century, the arrival of photographic reproduction slowed but did not stop the flow of handmade copies. Artists continued to draw inspiration from Rembrandt, copying his etchings as a way to learn his style and technique and to display their own skill.
The New Hollstein lists more than twice as many copies as previous catalogues, devoting two entire volumes to them. And yet three of Te Papa’s eight copies after Rembrandt were unknown to the editors of the catalogue. As they state in their introduction:
The research carried out for The New Hollstein volumes […] has always focused mainly on Rembrandt’s own work. During our visits to print rooms, we did not always have time to catalogue every copy after his etchings […]. ‘New copies’ surfaced in almost every collection we visited, and we hope that the present catalogue will lead to the identification of many more. 
This is exactly what I’ve been able to do. One of Te Papa’s ‘new copies’ is a reverse version of A blind hurdy-gurdy player and family receiving alms (below), a design first etched by Rembrandt in 1648.  This print is almost identical to an anonymous copy reproduced in The New Hollstein (below) – but not quite. Te Papa’s impression has had numerous subtle changes made to it, some of which are accidental: half a dozen diagonal scratches have appeared at the top of the doorway. Others are deliberate: look for the extra shading in the doorway, in the gutter and on the beggar man’s clothes.
This is known in printmaking as a new ‘state’: an altered version of an image printed from the same etched plate. The printmaker might have made changes in order to tweak the composition – to add or remove a detail, alter an expression, or adjust the balance of light and shade (Rembrandt did this frequently in his own prints) – or to touch up a worn plate after hundreds of printings. We don’t know who made the changes to the later state in Te Papa’s collection – was it the anonymous copyist who first etched the plate, or a later hand?
This last question has preoccupied experts for a very long time as far as Rembrandt’s own prints are concerned. Many of Rembrandt’s original etched copperplates were sold to other artists and dealers, and right up to the present day people have continued to alter them and print new editions (known as ‘issuing new states’). Te Papa’s impression of Rembrandt’s A blind hurdy-gurdy player and family receiving alms (above), is an example of the third state, whereas only the first state was entirely by Rembrandt. This means that on two separate occasions since the copperplate left his possession, other artists have added to it, reworking the shadows first in mezzotint and later with etched lines. For instance, most of the shading in front of the alms-giver’s face, on the doorjamb, was added in the third state by another hand. And two further posthumous states were issued after this one!
Rembrandt and John Smith
One of the most intriguing copies that surfaced was John Smith of Chichester’s The windmill (below), based on a print of the same name by Rembrandt. This very good copy was not originally made with forgery in mind: it was etched for publication in an eighteenth-century art book. ‘The Smith brothers of Chichester’ – George, John and William – were English painter-etchers known for their picturesque landscapes, but also for their reproductive prints. John (c. 1717-1764) was the youngest of the three.
In 1770, six years after John’s death, the print dealer and publisher John Boydell (1720-1804) published a number of his etchings – including The windmill – in A Collection Of Fifty-Three Prints, Consisting Of Etchings And Engravings, By Those Ingenious Artists Messrs. George And John Smith, Of Chichester, After Their Own Paintings And Other Masters. The book was made up of thirty picturesque landscapes, accompanied by reproductions after the Dutch Old Masters, including nine after Rembrandt.
All these copies (like the anonymous copy of A blind hurdy-gurdy player above) have one thing in common: they’re in reverse, for the simple reason that it’s much easier to etch a reverse copy than a copy facing the same way as the original. A copperplate, when printed onto paper, produces a reverse image – so if an artist etches an exact copy of another print, it will print as a mirror image. This is how John Smith of Chichester always worked. But Te Papa’s impression of The windmill is not a reverse print: unlike the otherwise identical version published by John Boydell, it faces in the same direction as the original Rembrandt (below).
From fine art to forgery
This seemed to suggest that the print was a counterproof. A counterproof is an image that is not printed directly from the plate, but from another freshly printed sheet of paper with the ink still wet. The resulting proof faces the same way as the image etched onto the plate (and the other way around from a standard print).
It’s usually fairly easy to tell whether or not you’re dealing with a counterproof. For one thing, it will generally be less darkly inked than a standard print: this is the case with Smith’s Windmill, which is rather grey and has some patches that have barely printed at all. So far, so good. But a counterproof should not have plate marks. Plate marks are the indentations left by the edges of the copperplate as it is pressed onto the sheet of paper during printing, and since counterproofs are not printed from a plate, their edges are not marked in this way.
But The windmill, though clearly a counterproof, does have plate marks: at some point in this print’s history, someone has forged them. They might have done this by scoring a line around the edge of the image, or by running it through a printing press with a blank copperplate.
What was the point of adding this seemingly obscure detail? To pass off Smith’s counterproof as an original Rembrandt, printed from a copperplate by the great master himself. Before the days of easy photographic comparison, it would have been very difficult for the unlucky buyer to spot the fake!
And that is how, swept up in the roaring historical trade in fake Rembrandts, one counterproof was transformed from an honest reproduction into an out-and-out forgery.
VUW Summer Scholar, Collections
In loving memory of Michael Boyes (1991-15 February 2016), adored fellow student and Te Papa host, and a wonderful person to have known. I was lucky to have you as my brilliant companion during our shared first foray into Rembrandt at the VUW’s Adam Art Gallery in 2015.
 Erik Hinterding & Jaco Rutgers, Rembrandt: the New Hollstein Dutch & Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts, Sound & Vision Publishers in cooperation with the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Ouderkerk aan den Ijssel, 2013 (7 vols).
 The New Hollstein (Rembrandt), vol. 1, pp. lxiii-lxiv and lxvi, footnote 81.
 The other two ‘new copies’ in the collection are the copy by Roland Hipkins after Rembrandt’s Self-portrait leaning on a stone sill (illustrated above), and an anonymous copy in reverse of Christ driving the money changers from the Temple (1910-0001-1/59-80 http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/Object/39519).