Unexpected Rembrandt Painting Goes From NJ Basement to LA Museum

Art Scene

Unexpected Rembrandt Painting Goes From NJ Basement to LA Museum

In the 1620s, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn covered a canvas with striking swaths of red and maroon in creating a painting called The Spectacle Peddler (Allegory of Sight). The then 18-year-old Baroque painter would paint four more portrayals of the human senses, from people singing in The Three Musicians (Allegory of Hearing) to an old man suffering through a medical procedure in The Stone Operation (Allegory of Touch).

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The Spectacle Peddler (Allegory of Sight), 1624–25, Rembrandt van Rijn

Until recently, the only anomaly in one of Rembrandt’s earliest series was the price point of his work, The Unconscious Patient (Allegory of the Sense of Smell), which was initially thought to sell for $500-$800—or about one one-hundredth of its discovered worth.

The LA Times tells the painting’s fascinating story from basement to museum. When John Nye, manager of the auction house Nye & Co., agreed to sell the piece on behalf of two New Jersey brothers trying to manage the property of their deceased parents, he originally had little expectations for what was at first a no-name painting that had a damaged surface and cracked wooden backing. The painting had been stored—not even on display—in the basement.

“We had no idea when it came up to sale that there were about to be fireworks,” Nye told the LA Times.

But when two Paris dealers learned of the work to be sold in the auction, featuring a young, ailing man smelling what are assumed to be salts administered as an antidote, they pounced. Bidding by phone, they closed in at $870,000 (or nearly $1 million with the premium factored in).

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Unconscious Patient (Allegory of the Sense of Smell), about 1624–25, Rembrandt van Rijn. Image courtesy of The Leiden Collection, New York.

“We weren’t completely certain at the time that it was authentic,” the dealers said. “Maybe 90 percent certain.”

Rembrandt’s early students copied his style so closely that their pieces were often confused for the esteemed originals. But, the day after the Parisians’ deal closed, New York financier Thomas Kaplan called. After an hour-long negotiation, Kaplan, who owns one of the world’s largest private collections of Dutch Golden Age art, had successfully secured the piece. The final price remains a secret.

“I had no doubt that it was Rembrandt,” said Kaplan. “It was pure serendipity.”

Kaplan proceeded to restore the painting, and with the removal of a layer of varnish, the artist’s initials “RF” in the upper-left corner were revealed. Now, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where Kaplan regularly lends his paintings, is the first museum to showcase the missing piece in Rembrandt’s series of senses, alongside two other Rembrandt sense paintings from Kaplan’s Leiden collection. Unconscious Patient (Allegory of the Sense of Smell) will be on display at the Getty through August 28 before traveling internationally.

This just goes to show that you never know just how prized a piece of art can be. What would you do if you unexpected stumbled upon and gained possession of a wildly valuable artwork? Tell us in the comments below.