For years, the painting hung in the Essex County family’s dining room, sometimes to the dismay of people eating near the artwork.
The painting, listed in an auction presentation as “Oil on board, Triple Portrait with Lady Fainting,” and originally offered for $800, features a man and a woman attending to an ill woman with smelling salts.
“They all wondered, ‘Why do we need to eat dinner with this painting looking over us? A woman looking like she was overcome by bad food?’ ” Jamie Colby, host of the TV show “Strange Inheritance,” observed the quandary of a painting in a dining room whose subject matter suppressed some appetites.
The wall decor displaying people clad in 17th-century garb administering smelling salts to an ill or unconscious woman eventually migrated to the Essex County home’s basement.
“Strange Inheritance,” however, will take a big bite into this story, featuring the family’s realization that their painting was rare.
It was actually a well-done illustration by Rembrandt.
People who’d seen the painting displayed presumed it was a replica of the Dutch master Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s original work, “Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell).”
It’s one of a quintet of paintings the artist created in his teens, in 1624 or 1625, to signify the five senses.
Three other paintings in the matching set of wall panels, illustrating sight, hearing, and touch, belong to the Leiden Collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists compiled by Tom and Daphne Kaplan. The fifth painting, depicting taste, has not been found.
After their grandfather’s death, brothers Ned and Steven Landau took the artwork in 2015 to Nye & Company Auctioneers in Bloomfield, where they were initially told it might fetch around $500.
John Nye, of Nye & Company, put what appeared to be an unsigned copy of the Rembrandt painting up for auction.
In 2015, because of the framing and lack of a signature, historic-art experts in New York and at the Bloomfield auction house presumed it was a copy, Nye said Thursday.
“Everybody was caught by surprise. There were only three people in the world that recognized the significance of the painting, and they were all in Europe,” the auctioneer said.
Nye recalled that the potential buyers from Germany and France phoned in their bids from overseas.
The losing bidder upped the ante to $870,000 before the top bidders closed the sale at $1.1 million.
“Because it was online, the whole world had the opportunity to find it,” Nye said. “That’s what created the competition in the auction room.”
“This one slipped through all the experts’ expectations, except for two very astute art gallery owners overseas, who spotted it on the website for Nye & Company,” said Colby, speaking by telephone from Houston, where she was filming another episode.
The successful bidders, who didn’t have the painting authenticated until after purchasing it at auction, then sold it to a collector seeking the fourth in the series of Rembrandt “senses” paintings, she said.
“They sold it for an estimated $4 million,” Colby said. “But the family didn’t get that. That went to the people smart enough to track it down.”
On Thursday, Nye took his coming appearance on television in stride, having previously toured with PBS.
“I’ve been doing ‘Antiques Roadshow’ for seven years, so this is just another feather in my cap,” he said.
The Essex County family’s tale airs Monday at 9 p.m. on the Fox Business Network.
The show’s Monday episode is part of a two-day premiere and will be followed on Tuesday by an episode about the unexpected find of 19th-century slave rebel Nat Turner’s Bible.
“I love our show for focusing on the human spirit,” Colby said. “It’s a nice break from the hard news to see these people make these incredible decisions.”
Along with the human spirit, there’s also taste, touch, sight, hearing … and smell.