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The Collectors

A local couple unveil their prized Dutch masters to the public

At her home, Rose-Marie van Otterloo with a linen press from around 1600-1610. At her home, Rose-Marie van Otterloo with a linen press from around 1600-1610. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / February 20, 2011

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When the alarm went off at the home of perhaps the world’s greatest collectors of 17th-century Dutch art, the police raced to the scene. And Marblehead’s finest didn’t like what they saw after entering Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo’s waterfront home. The walls were bare.

Gone was the Cuyp, a sprawling country landscape the North Shore couple had purchased for a few million dollars and kept over the fireplace. Likewise the Weenix and the de Witte, other living-room mainstays.

With the van Otterloos at their home in Florida that recent winter night, it was left to their son, Sander, to explain the good news.

The works weren’t stolen. They were on loan.

For the first time, the van Otterloos have allowed their prized collection to be shown in its entirety. Starting Saturday, an exhibition titled “Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection’’ opens at the Peabody Essex Museum, with nearly 70 paintings and more than 20 pieces of furniture and decorative arts.

Rose-Marie van Otterloo chuckles at the story of the false alarm. But it also reveals an important truth: They don’t want their art in storage or behind glass. Though their collection is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, its value, to them, is their connection to it. They live with the art.

“I have a 4 1/2-year-old wild child and an 18-month-old, and they just crawl all over the 17th-century furniture or put a cup of milk without a coaster on a table,’’ said Sander van Otterloo, an English teacher at the nearby Shore Country Day School. “I always look at my parents to see if they get shocked or upset about it, but they really believe you live with the art. They really have this feeling that you can’t overly stress about having art in your house and living with it. It’s just how you do it.’’

On a recent weekday, Rose-Marie van Otterloo agreed to a rare interview at their home as a staff of art handlers cleared out some pieces of period Dutch furniture for the show. The paintings had already been on display in The Hague at the Mauritshuis, which organized the exhibition with the Peabody Essex Museum. The furniture is being added especially for the PEM exhibit.

“Eijk and I agonized about it for a long time because we like to be anonymous,’’ she said of their decision to take part in such a high-profile show. “All of a sudden, we step out with this collection.’’

She offered a resigned laugh as she mentioned an Art Newspaper story published in advance of the opening in the Netherlands.

“It started where writer Judy Dobrzynski called us ‘The greatest collectors you’ve never heard of.’ ’’

But the van Otterloos found it hard to resist the requests from the Mauritshuis and the Peabody Essex. (Rose-Marie is on PEM’s board of trustees and a board member at the Museum of Fine Arts.)

“We knew this was going to be a huge sacrifice,’’ she said. “We’re really going to miss these paintings. But who is missing them the most are the museums that had them on long-term loan.’’

Over the years, works from the collection have been shown at the National Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, London’s National Gallery, and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

The MFA has been hit particularly hard by the exhibition. The museum had to remove the couple’s prized Rembrandt “Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh,’’ along with eight other works and a piece of furniture.

“It’s such a privilege to live with their paintings that you do miss them when they’re gone,’’ said MFA senior curator Ronni Baer.

She calls the van Otterloo collection “one of the finest, if not the finest, collection of Dutch paintings in private hands.’’

Their own art history They are not an ostentatious couple. Visitors to their home might be offered a sandwich or a cup of coffee brewed by Rose-Marie, 65, a handsome woman with short gray hair. Crayon drawings by their grandchildren are on display in the kitchen. And their prized Dutch furniture isn’t just for show. They keep their dishes in one piece. Another is stuffed with family photographs. In the living room, boxes are now full of items, as if it’s moving day.

Eijk van Otterloo, 73, made his money trading stocks. The investment management firm he founded, Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co., manages more than $100 billion. But they don’t talk about art as a commodity. That’s because they do not plan to sell works. They plan eventually to give the collection away.

Eijk and Rose-Marie met on a blind date in 1973. He was born in the Netherlands and head of equity at Phoenix Mutual Life. She was born in Belgium and a market researcher at Merrill Lynch. They married the next year and moved to the North Shore in 1976, when Eijk founded GMO.

First they collected horse carriages, filling a barn in a home they owned in New Hampshire. Next they collected paintings of English carriage houses. About 20 years ago, Eijk van Otterloo approached then-MFA curator Peter Sutton and told him he was thinking of collecting art from his birth country.

Since then, the van Otterloos have gone through many changes, from advisers — Sutton to former Rijksmuseum director Simon Levie and now Mauritshuis director Frederik J. Duparc — to the works themselves. At one point, at Levie’s suggestion, they sold more than a dozen paintings in order to upgrade their collection. What’s impressed Sutton is their staying power.

“Some collectors have a spurt of activity and they never collect again,’’ said Sutton, currently director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. “As a matter of fact, we used to be able to estimate that collectors only have about six years of collecting and then they burn out. But they’ve been doing this for a while: 25 years. That’s a real calling.’’

Eijk van Otterloo does all of the negotiating.

“The art field is notoriously difficult to gauge where the price should be,’’ he said by phone from Naples, Fla. He clearly relishes telling stories about the chase, the nitty-gritty of collecting. “At auction, it’s easy. You either pay too much or you will not get the picture. It’s as simple as that. With dealers, you can appeal to their fantasies about having you as a client and having you continuing to buy things. So if they’re not fleecing you now and are reasonable, then maybe they’ll sell you more things later.

“It’s a pretty benign process,’’ he continues. “It’s not slamming phones or getting irritated. At some point you set a price, and that’s what your goal is going to be. If the dealer sees some profit at that price, the dealer will often let it go.’’

There have been works they paid too much for, he concedes. And there have been paintings that got away. That happened when a beautiful Berckheyde went up for auction at Christie’s London in December. The van Otterloos were bidding through their dealer, Johnny Van Haeften, and Eijk van Otterloo set a price beyond which he wasn’t willing to go.

“Because in another occasion I had given him some leeway, and the leeway he took was 50 percent above my price,’’ he said.

The work, estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million, sold for $4 million. Eijk’s limit had been $2 million.

Once a piece is purchased, Rose-Marie van Otterloo springs into action. She takes care of insurance and transport. She keeps meticulous records in a series of binders in their basement office. Inside, there are descriptions of a work by their adviser, slides, loan agreements, even the tiny scrap papers Eijk scribbles on as he’s negotiating with a dealer.

They have clear criteria for choosing works. A painting needs to be in excellent condition. It has to be from the 17th century. And it must be by the artist at his best.

“We don’t want an average work by an artist,’’ said Rose-Marie. “We want a fabulous work. As good as it gets. Sometimes, we have three of the same artist because the artist deserves it.’’

The Rembrandt, for example, had been owned by a French baroness before being sold, in 2000, for $28.7 million to an art dealer. The work shows a friend of the artist, the wife of a minister. “Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh’’ is notable, art historians say, for the way Rembrandt uses light to bring the woman’s face to life. Before the van Otterloos bought it — for an undisclosed sum in 2005 — it had never been seen in the United States. The MFA put it on display in 2008.

Cherished and coveted Collectors usually don’t like to talk publicly about where their art may end up, but the “Golden’’ show has the van Otterloos contemplating that very subject. Standing in her study, Rose-Marie raised a series of possibilities.

“Should it stay in Massachusetts? Should Europe have the collection? Belgium?’’

Eijk was more specific.

He said if they were to give it away now, it would probably go to the MFA. But he’s interested in hearing from MFA director Malcolm Rogers about how he might be able to accommodate a library of more than 10,000 Dutch art-history books the couple recently purchased.

The van Otterloos are also considering PEM; the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.; and the National Gallery in Washington, at which admission is free, an attractive feature for a couple who say they think a lot about how to make art accessible to the public.

“Look, they probably have the most comprehensive collection of Dutch art assembled in our lifetimes in private hands,’’ said Sutton. “It’s an open secret that everybody would covet the collection.’’

The MFA’s Baer said acquiring the van Otterloo collection would be simply “amazing.’’

“It would lift the quality of our collection of Dutch painting to a whole different level,’’ she said. “It would be institution-changing.’’

But for now, the van Otterloos say they’re not ready to part with their work.

“People are making advances,’’ said Rose-Marie. “They’re starting to dance. All I can tell you is we have so much fun and we’re so proud of what we’ve done together.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

GOLDEN: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection

At: Peabody Essex Museum, Feb. 26-June 19. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org