Experts Believe Painting Valued at $800 at Auction Is a Real Rembrandt

Was there hidden treasure at a New Jersey auction house?

Triple Portrait with Lady Fainting offered through New Jersey auctioneer Nye and Company soared to $870,000 on an estimate of $500 to $800. Image: Courtesy of Nye and Company.

A small artwork billed as a 19th-century “Continental School” painting and valued at just $500 to $800 broke free of that price range and raced to a final bid of $870,000 on September 22, sparking talk that the bidders who competed intensely for it believe it could be a Rembrandt.

The oil on board, Triple Portrait with Lady Fainting, was offered by Bloomfield, New Jersey auction house Nye and Company (which bills itself as “The New Jersey alternative to the New York Auction House”). In cases where experts are unsure they can support an ironclad attribution—particularly where Old Masters are concerned—less specific descriptions or labels such as “school of,” or “follower of,” or “circle of,” are often used. But the “19th-Century” label is about as broad as possible.

In this case some eagle-eyed dealers and experts clearly suspected that there could be a hidden gem here, and a bidding war ensued.

This morning artnet News spoke with auction house director John Nye about the sale. We asked whether he or his staff had gotten wind of any presale buzz on the work. “In a word, no,” said Nye. “There was no inclination that it was going to do anything like what it did.”

“It was really just all at once, when the lot came up and we started the bidding, it just didn’t stop, it kept going and going. It was at 30 [thousand] and then 50, and I started thinking ‘Wow, this is pretty cool’,” said Nye.

Nye said the contest came down to two telephone bidders who “duked it out,” adding that the work eventually sold to a European phone bidder. No word on who the buyer is, including whether he or she is a dealer or a collector.

According to Marion Maneker, writing in The Art Market Monitor, at least three connoisseurs think the work could be an early Rembrandt, including Bendor Grosvenor.

According to Grosvenor’s blog, arthistorynews.com, a screenshot depicting the bidding activity was accompanied by text reading: “They’re coming thick and fast at the moment. The above screenshot comes courtesy of a sleuthing reader, and shows the $870,000 closing bid on a ’19th C Continental School, Portrait with Lady Fainting’ sold today in the US. The estimate was $500–$800. Someone has taken quite a punt.”

“Still, $870,000 (or close to $1m with premium),” Grosvenor added, “is cheap for an early Rembrandt. It’s a little expensive for an early Dou.”

“The sleeper hit (lot 216),” Paul Jeromack wrote in The Art Newspaper, ” is believed to be a long lost panel by a teenaged Rembrandt.”

According to his report, the work had been noticed by some Old Master dealers and was thought to be a depiction of Smell, part of Rembrandt’s series on the Five Senses. The series dates from circa 1625 and is considered to be among the artist’s first-ever paintings, possibly executed while he was still a student in the studio of Dutch painter Pieter Lastman.

Nye told artnet News the work had been consigned by a group of local siblings whose parents had passed away and left them property including some dinner services, sterling, and other paintings that they also consigned.

Asked if he had spoken to the consignors yet, Nye said he had left them a message. “I’m sure they’re going to be stunned. They’re going to think it’s a mistake if they look it up online.”

He added: “Even though we research consigned lots as thoroughly as possible, the beauty of an auction is that there is always surprises, and this is an excellent example of that.”

A similar, though even more monumental Old Master coup was seen last year, when a buyer who acquired an unattributed painting at a Christie’s auction for $5,000, cleaned it up, spent some time and money on authenticating it as a work by John Constable, and then sold it at Sotheby’s for a whopping $5 million.

Related stories:

Painting Bought for $5,000 Sells At Sotheby’s For $5 Million

Sotheby’s Ratchets Up Price on Rediscovered Constable

Rubens Painting Cast Off By Met Revealed as A Rubens


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