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The Yom Kippur Surprise Of A Lifetime

The Landau brothers sat in synagogue and atoned while what they believed to be an unremarkable painting belonging to their grandparents was auctioned for over $1 million

Jesse Bernstein
January 16, 2018
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A self-portrait by RembrandtCreative Commons

What’s on your mind when you sit in Yom Kippur services? Is it an account of the last year of your shortcomings? Is it just that one that really bothers you? Is it the interminable Yizkor service?

How about a painting?

The Landau brothers—Steve, Ned, and Roger—had sat at their grandparents’ table for decades being stared at by an odd painting, depicting a woman, ill or perhaps unconscious, being offered smelling salts. After the grandparents died, it went to their mother; after her death, the brothers began the process of clearing out her house, and happened once again upon the painting. They decided to put it up for auction, figuring it would snag them a couple hundred dollars.

They turned the painting over to John Nye, an auctioneer at Nye & Company, and were told that the painting might fetch $500 on a good day. The auction was set for Yom Kippur (2015, in this story), and on the day of, they shut off their phones and headed to synagogue.

A day or two after the holiday, Roger called Nye to inquire about the auction. “I asked, ‘Oh, so how’d the auction go?’ and he said, ‘Well, it actually went quite well.’”

Turns out that the odd painting was part an early Rembrandt collection depicting the five senses. The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of the Sense of Smell), painted in 1624, had been sold to the Landau’s grandfather for next to nothing at an estate sale in the ’30s, and neither he nor the seller had any idea as to the value of the painting.

Callers had put in bids from Germany and France when the auction began, sending the price soaring past Nye’s prediction. Soon after the auction sale, a buyer with three of the four other senses purchased ‘Smell’ for over $4 million.

The painting depicting taste is still floating out there somewhere.

Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.