Rembrandt painting found in New Jersey basement now in museum

 A woman poses with the painting "The Unconscious Patient" by Rembrandt van Rijn.
A woman poses with the painting "The Unconscious Patient" by Rembrandt van Rijn.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - A painting languishing in a New Jersey basement that turned out to be one of Dutch master Rembrandt's earliest works goes on display on Wednesday at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California as a key part of an exhibit on the 17th century artist.

"The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory Of The Sense Of Smell)" depicts two men wafting a rag under the nose of a third man who is swooning and is dated 1624, the museum said in a press release.

The 23cm by 25cm work is among a series of five paintings on the senses that Rembrandt created as a teenager, and will be displayed with two others - hearing and touch - from Wednesday until Aug 28, when the exhibit will travel internationally.

The painting's slog from a New Jersey basement to the upper echelons of the art world began in July when adult children cleaning out their family home in Essex County after their parents died contacted John Nye, owner of Nye and Co auction house in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

"The picture was remarkably unremarkable," Nye said, recalling the oil painting was flaking.

"It looked like a dark, discoloured portrait of three people, one of whom is passed out."

When the painting went up for auction in September, Nye estimated it would fetch up to US$800 (S$1,000), having spent two weeks on display on the auction house wall and in its online catalogue.

That is where sharp-eyed art aficionados from three different European countries spotted it, ultimately leading to a Paris art dealer's winning bid of US$870,000, or about US$1.1 million including the typical added sale premium, Nye said.

"I was stunned," Nye said in a phone interview.

Soon, the Paris dealer was in contact with New York financier Thomas Kaplan, who heads the investment firm Electrum Group, and is founder of the Leiden Collection, one of the world's largest private collections of Dutch Golden Age art.

Restoration of the piece confirmed suspicions - it revealed the initials RHF, for Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn fecit.

"Basically, he put his name down and 'fecit' means 'made this'," said Nye.

Rembrandt's painting of the fourth sense - sight - is in a museum in the Netherlands but the whereabouts of the fifth sense - taste - remains unknown.

"If someone sees an allegorical painting of three fancifully dressed people eating, call me and I'll come check it out," Nye said.