Young Jan, standing at a confident six feet five, will eventually inherit the title of van Hillegom and take control of the collection. His goal is to make the great works available to a broader public, both by welcoming more people to visit the collection in Amsterdam after the renovation is completed next spring and also by loaning the works to the world’s great art institutions. “As an art historian, I love art, I dream art, and so I don’t mind showing it and sharing it with the world,” he says. “I’d love the collection to travel to the Louvre, the National Gallery in London or Washington, to the Frick—everywhere.”
At one time the Six Collection included masterpieces such as Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid and The Little Street, Rembrandt’s Portrait of Saskia in Profile and Jan Steen’s The Oyster Eater. But these were sold over the years to pay estate taxes, and now they’re in major museums. In the early 20th century the Dutch state made a deal with the Six family, relieving them of inheritance taxes as long as they wouldn’t sell any more art and would keep the collection in Holland.
Six would never sell, he says, but he sees no harm in loaning pieces. “I’m a modern person,” he explains. “And it’s quite abnormal for a modern person to live with a Rembrandt in their living room. Especially when you’re a direct descendant of the person in the portrait and there’s a facial resemblance—then it’s a bit scary.”
Actually, at first glance, Jan Six XI doesn’t much resemble Jan Six I. Rembrandt’s Jan had curly red hair, pocked cheeks and a generous jowl. Contemporary Jan has straight jet-black hair, flawless skin and delicate features. One can find similarities, however, in the nearly kohl eyes and the proud Roman nose.
Although he says he had a normal childhood, playing football in the house with his younger brother, Bas, and throwing wild parties as a teenager, Six also found it scary to be watched at all times by 270 ancestral portraits. “I remember that moment walking down the hallway when all these paintings changed for me,” he says. “They were first sort of two-dimensional images of my relatives, and then they became legacies of painters, great pictures that tell stories.”
That happened at age 11, he says, and by 13 he was giving tours of the family house. Although not officially a museum, the Sixes informally welcome about 5,000 visitors a year. Among the names signed in their 24 guest books are Czar Alexander II of Russia, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan and former President Jacques Chirac of France.
It was the personal contact with art that made Six want to pursue a career in the auction business. “At a museum you can’t get close to a work without an alarm going off,” he says. “At an auction house, you can still touch the objects, look at them up close, see them how the artist saw them.”