Richard Holbrooke and Rembrandt

"Is The Polish Rider by Rembrandt?" The first words Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, then U.S. envoy to the UN, spoke to me had nothing to do with the business at hand - the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague (ICTY). At the time, in fall of 2000, I was serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, and had come to Schiphol Airport with the Embassy's Legal Advisor Allen Weiner to meet and speak with Holbrooke on his layover between flights.

Having heard about Holbrooke's formidable reputation, I had prepared myself to answer any and every question about the Tribunal, but was completely taken aback when the man who had tamed Milosevic asked me about Rembrandt.

But the two -- questioning Rembrandt's authorship and questioning Milosevic's authority -- were more closely related than might initially seem apparent. Holbrooke had a rapacious intellect. Before the age of Google, he learned everything about his interlocutors, whether friendly or not.

Thus, Holbrooke asked me -- a Clinton political appointee and former art historian specializing in seventeenth century Dutch art and Rembrandt -- not just any question about Rembrandt, but actually, the burning issue in Rembrandt authorship at the time. Even more incredible was that this was a question I had debated in books and articles. So, I had an answer for Ambassador Holbrooke : yes, Rembrandt did paint "The Polish Rider," an assertion I could back up with evidence too detailed for this article.

And Holbrooke listened, and responded with questions of his own. He was not someone who came up with a clever question, and then turned away or moved on before anyone had a chance to answer. At least in this case, he seemed genuinely interested.

Eventually, we did progress to discussing pending issues involving the War Crimes Tribunal. By that time, I was totally at ease. To be honest, I was putty in Holbrooke's hand, having been so flattered by his interest in my Rembrandt expertise.

After his meeting with Allen Weiner and me, Holbrooke, the ultimate connoisseur, stopped to buy some Iranian caviar. (Secretary Albright had just lifted the ban).

The last time I saw Richard Holbrooke was at a launch, hosted by Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee, for Pakistani rock musician Salman Ahmad's autobiography, Rock 'n Roll Jihad. How typical of this virtuoso diplomat that he would make the effort, even on the tail of a long overseas trip, to listen to a rock musician's view of the Pakistani quagmire.

Richard Holbrooke is known for many things, but I will remember him as an impressive, sometimes even intimidating diplomat, who understood the value of culture in diplomacy.