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Under a Thick Layer of Shrubbery, Traces of Vermeer

Earlier this year Hartmann, who runs the small gallery and Vermeer museum shop near Delft's central square, was contacted by a wealthy American family to check the authenticity of a Vermeer that was coming up for auction at Sotheby's in London.

"Young Woman Seated at the Virginals" was sold for some $30 million in July, 10 times the auctioneer's estimate.

A Dutch art restorer says this building in Delft was the studio of 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer. (Michael Kooren -- Reuters)

During his research into the history of the painting, Hartmann stumbled on clues to the location of the studio, and checks in the local registry clinched the find. Records showed Vermeer had rented the building, which has three large bay windows that are seen on several of his paintings.

A visit to a street (Voorstraat) along one of the many canals in Delft shows there is still a building with the name of the brewery from which Vermeer rented the studio. At first the location's similarity to "The Little Street" is not obvious. Both buildings in the painting have been renovated and cars are parked outside where children played. But on closer inspection, the dimensions and position of doors and windows and the outlines of houses in the distance show similarities with the masterpiece.

Hartmann says the girl playing in the street in the painting is the same daughter, probably Elisabeth, who is depicted in "The Girl With a Pearl Earring" -- not the maid Griet, who the novel and film suggested was in love with Vermeer.

Upon close inspection, both girls have a slight hunchback.

"An artist, especially a detail-conscious one like Vermeer, cannot paint a daughter differently than she is. He can obscure a handicap but not make it disappear because then it would no longer be a painting of his daughter," Hartmann said.

A walk through a small alleyway leads to the studio, which is situated in an overgrown garden. The small white building with a pointed and tiled roof is set at the back of a bigger one that has an entrance on the street.

Hartmann has put the deeds into a foundation and enlisted the help of the local mayor for his bid to get the place classified as a world heritage site and turn the building into a real museum to honor one of Delft's most famous inhabitants.

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