The Last Vermeer

A newly acknowledged painting by Johannes Vermeer will be sold at auction this summer. How do you put a price on the priceless?

Almost nothing is rarer, or better, than a painting by Vermeer. His entire oeuvre consists of just 36 pictures, with the last auction of his work occurring more than 80 years ago. The sale of a painting by the Dutch master seems almost miraculous, like one of those astral events that happen once in a lifetime. Hence the commotion over the enchanting little picture coming up for sale this July at Sotheby's in London.

Young Woman Seated at the Virginals may be the only Vermeer remaining in private hands. Since the 1940s, experts have questioned its authenticity, but cleaning, restoration, and intense scientific and scholarly analysis have now removed all such doubts. Sotheby's estimates that the painting, which is just ten by eight inches, will sell for more than $5.4 million. Almost everyone regards that as extremely low, but the truth is: No one knows how much a Vermeer is worth. A private collector of unlimited means could well decide to pay whatever it takes. Imagine living, in this helter-skelter world, with an image of sublime calm and tenderness. That is truly rare.

Young Woman Seated at the Virginals will be on view July 2-7 at Sotheby's in London prior to the sale on the evening of July 7.