When three brothers from Teaneck approached auctioneer John Nye about selling off a collection of old family possessions, Nye thought the silver tea set would fetch more than the cracked and faded 9-inch painting.
"The varnish had discolored tremendously," said the auctioneer, who heads Nye & Company Auctioneers in Bloomfield. "It was crackled and there were (paint) losses. The painting was dark and the monogram in the upper right corner wasn't visible."
Ned, Roger and Steven Landau inherited silver, china and the painting when their mother died in 2010. She had inherited the items years earlier.
"It was a wall painting and it never looked like much," Roger Landau said Tuesday. "My parents had larger paintings that we considered much more valuable." The painting, which depicts two men attempting to revive a woman, made Ned Landau uncomfortable. "It was of a woman passed out in a chair, and two men trying to revive her. As a kid I thought, 'why did we have a painting like that in our dining room?'" he told Jamie Colby of Strange Inheritance on Fox Business. The painting ended up in a box in Roger Landau's basement under the ping-pong table. It wasn't until the strange painting was sold at auction that Nye and the Landaus found out what they had - a long lost, million-dollar Rembrandt. "Rarely is an Old Master painting an Old Master painting," said Nye, explaining that many 19th Century artists copied works from the 16th Century greats as a way to develop their own skills. "I thought that (a copy) was what we had," he said. "Nobody and I mean nobody recognized we had something of historical significance created by a household name." And Nye says he thought nothing of it when three people from England, France and Germany requested to bid on the artwork over the phone as other bidders gathered in the sales room. "There was no indication that there was anything going on at this point," Nye said. "We signed each one of them up for a phone bid." None of the bidders from Europe asked for a condition report. Nor did they ask for additional photos of the painting. Nobody asked questions, Nye said. "They were keeping the cards close to the vest," he said. The bidding started at $250 and soon passed Nye's $800 high estimate. Then the caller from France bid $5,000. The caller from Germany countered and bidding reached $100,000. The winning bid of $1.1 million came from the French caller, Nye said. At that price, the German caller backed off. And then he explained to Nye what was going on. "You just sold a Rembrandt," the caller told Nye. "I have been looking for this painting my whole professional life." "That was the first inclination we had handled something historic," Nye said. When the painting was cleaned up, Rembrandt's monogram became visible, Nye said. Turns out Rembrandt painted the piece as a teenager in the 1620s. It was called "The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of the Sense of Smell)" and was one of five highlighting the human senses and the only one monogrammed by the artist, Nye said. The French bidder sold the painting to Thomas and Daphne Kaplan, who own three others in the series. The fifth painting, depicting taste, has not been found. Nye said the amount the Kaplans paid for the painting has not been disclosed. A published report states they paid around $4 million. The Landau brothers have no idea where the painting came from. And since it was so unremarkable, they never asked. "It's a bit of a mystery," Roger Landau said. "Both of my parents are gone and we don't have any way of finding out."
Content gathered & updated by the Bergen Review Media team.