Nobody expects to find a Rembrandt sitting under the ping-pong table in the basement. So the Landau brothers, natives of Teaneck, N.J., felt perfectly comfortable skipping their own estate auction.
What happened next was incredible, even for an episode of Strange Inheritance, the Fox Business Network series which premieres its fourth season Monday, Jan. 15. The Landau’s tell their story to host Jamie Colby at 9 p.m. ET.
Their inheritance tale started typically: Back when Ned, Roger and Steven Landau’s grandparents died, their mother cleared out their house, keeping some items that might go well in her dining room – like his silver tea set and a couple of old paintings. Then mom died in 2010, and her three sons repeated the drill.
“We had a garage sale, but there were a few things like the china and silver that looked very nice and we thought, well, we don’t really want to just give them away,” Ned tells Colby in the program.
One item that again made the cut was a small painting that had always creeped out Ned.
“It was of a woman passed out in a chair, and two men trying to revive her. As a kid I thought, ‘why did we have a painting like that in our dining room?’” he says.
Mom’s nice stuff went straight into Roger’s basement. Though the boxes made it hard to play ping-pong, Roger procrastinated another four years before calling the estate sale guy up the parkway, John Nye. Nye valued the silver pieces at a couple of thousand dollars, and each of three paintings at a few hundred. Like Ned, Nye wasn’t impressed by the picture of the men reviving the woman with smelling salts: “It had varnish that had cracked and paint loss. Not a beautiful painting and the people in the picture were not beautiful people. It was remarkably unremarkable.”
The appraisal sounded about right to the Landau brothers. Steven thought, “If I get my, you know, few hundred dollars, I’ll be extremely happy.”
“I even forgot when the auction was happening,” adds Roger. “It was Yom Kippur and I don’t answer my phone.”
There wasn’t going to be much to phone home about anyway, it seemed. The silver fetched a little more than expected, and a couple of the paintings a little less. As for that unappetizing portrait from their dining room, the bidding started at $250 and worked up to Nye’s $800 high estimate. Then a phone bidder from France made clear he was in it to win.
“All of a sudden it’s at $5,000 and man, that happened in no time,” says Nye.
When a caller from Germany answered every bid by the Frenchman, the price blew past $80,000, and then $100,000.
“Everyone started creeping back into the sales room, and the bidding just kept going!” recalls Nye’s wife Kathy who was on the phone to France, while her colleague Amy Ludlow handed the German.
“Eventually we’re at $450,000, and I said, ‘Would you like to bid?’” Ludlow recalls. “He says, ‘Yes, bid.’ I was in disbelief.”
Only after the French buyer scared him off with a $1.1 million winning bid (including commission) did Ludlow’s German bidder explain what was going on.
“He said, ‘Amy, it was a Rembrandt. I’ve been looking for this painting my whole adult professional career.’”
It would take a little longer before the Landau brothers learned about their strange inheritance.
“Maybe one, two days after Yom Kippur I returned John’s call,” says Roger. “I asked, ‘Oh, so how’d the auction go?’ and he said, ‘Well, it actually went quite well.’”
The painting turned out to be one of Rembrandt’s earliest works – part of a lost series on the five senses from the early 1600s. It appears the Landau’s grandfather had unknowingly purchased the “Sense of Smell” from an equally clueless seller at an estate auction before the Depression.
Whatever the case, the painting that freaked out young Ned Landau every Thanksgiving has become his all-time favorite work of art.
“It’s one of Rembrandt’s best!” he now opines.