Mystery of the lost Rembrandt

Michael Prodger tracks the story of a lost masterpiece

On Art

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In 1625, rembrandt was 19 years old and living in his home town of Leiden. Although he was the ninth of 10 children born to a flour-dusted couple — a miller and his wife, the daughter of a baking family — he had been given a classical education among Leiden’s haute bourgeoisie at the city’s Latin school, and then at its university, the oldest in the Netherlands.

Rembrandt was an artistic prodigy but he was not the most prodigious young artist in the city. That was Jan Lievens, a year younger than Rembrandt but more advanced in his training. By the age of 13, Lievens had painted a picture of a boy reading by firelight that had been presented to King James I. The two young artists became close friends, would share a studio for five years, and worked in a spirit of collaboration tinged with competitiveness. Nevertheless, Rembrandt was the junior partner. According to the poet and connoisseur Constantijn Huygens who met them in Leiden, the tyro painters were “miracles of talent and skill” despite being “more children than young men”.

Rembrandt was an artistic prodigy but he was not the most prodigious young artist in the city

Although they worked closely, the young artists also needed to distinguish themselves as distinct painters, so, around 1525, Rembrandt started to work on a series of five small pictures that he hoped would advertise his skills. Each painting contained three figures and a scene that would have been familiar to his viewers and each was an allegory of the senses. The pictures, on panel, had double titles: Three Musicians (Allegory of Hearing), Stone Operation (Allegory of Touch), Spectacles Seller (Allegory of Sight), Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell), and the lost Allegory of Taste. The pictures are quite unlike his low-toned later works being both bright in colour and almost caricaturist in content. The series was dispersed, probably in the early eighteenth century, and three re-emerged in the early twentieth century. Then, in 2015, at Nye & Co Auctioneers in New Jersey, a small painting showing two elderly figures proffering a cloth to the nose of a comatose man to bring him back to consciousness after bloodletting came up for sale. The picture was in poor condition and assumed to be a nineteenth-century work. “It was remarkably unremarkable,” said the auctioneer.

The painting belonged to Roger and Steven Landau, two brothers who had called in Nye to value their dead mother’s estate. He put a top estimate of $800 on the picture and it gathered little pre-sale interest. When the sale started, however, two bidders, both from Europe, quickly pushed the price up and up and it eventually sold to the Paris gallery Talabardon & Gautier for $870,000 (some $1.1 million with commissions). When the failed underbidder told the auctioneer that the painting was Allegory of Smell, the fourth picture in the Rembrandt series (it is just nine inches tall and had been enlarged with panels added to the sides) the auction house broke into spontaneous applause. The fifth painting, showing taste, is still missing.

The picture was quickly sold on, to Thomas Kaplan, a collector who owns 10 Rembrandts, including two of the other allegories: he reportedly paid $4 million (about £2.9 million) for it. Now, however, Kaplan is one of the parties being sued by Jay Rappoport, a cousin of the Landaus. Rappoport says that the painting was bought by his grandfather in the 1930s and that his aunt and cousins “pilfered” the picture from his dying grandmother and that he was the heir. According to Rappoport’s lawyer, “Behind the scenes, there’s a conspiracy to get the painting basically laundered, from the Landaus, who knew it was a Rembrandt, to the owners of the largest private collection of Rembrandts.” The auction house and some of its staff who handled the telephone bids are also being sued as “co-conspirators” for their part in the proceedings.

It is worth noting that the Landaus didn’t learn that the painting was a missing Rembrandt until several days after the sale because they were observing Yom Kippur and keeping away from email and other technology. Rappoport wants either the return of the painting or $5 million plus legal fees and court costs. As his lawyer put it somewhat disingenuously, “Ultimately these things probably have a monetary settlement value.”

Whether his case against all those involved in the Rembrandt sale makes it to court remains to be seen

Kaplan’s lawyer has countered that not only is the case “without merit” but that Rappoport’s demands represent “a cynical, opportunistic, and much-belated ploy to capitalise on the Rembrandt’s recent rediscovery and sale at high price”.

He also pointed out that Rappoport was not unfamiliar with the law. In 1998, he brought a case against Steven Spielberg, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers and others, claiming they had infringed his copyright and used his ideas for the 1994 Spielberg movie The Pagemaster. Rappoport sought “accurate attribution for his work and compensatory and punitive damages”. In the end, however, he signalled that he was “willing to waive his claims”.

Whether his case against all those involved in the Rembrandt sale makes it to court remains to be seen. The painter was himself no stranger to legal problems: he was taken to court by Geertje Dircx, the nurse to his son, for breaking his promise to marry her, and when she pawned some of his dead wife’s jewellery he in turn had her committed to the Gouda House of Correction. So he might have watched the current goings on with an interest born of understanding or, more likely, simply painted them into another allegory.

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