New Jersey family sued for alleged conspiracy to sell Rembrandt painting

The sale of an early Rembrandt (1606-1669) painting has sparked a family feud in New Jersey, US, after several heirs of its former owner were accused of conspiracy and deception in New York State Supreme Court.  

Painted around 1624-25, ‘Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell)’ is now considered a quintessential example of Rembrandt’s early style from his Leiden period. But when the painting was sold at New Jersey’s Nye & Co auctioneers in 2015, it had only been catalogued as “Continental school, Nineteenth Century” with an estimate of $500-$800 (£360-£578). Several experts recognised the painting as a Rembrandt and it subsequently sold for $870,000 (£628,000) to Galerie Talabardon & Gautier in Paris. 

Following the sale John Nye, president of Nye & Co, said “I found it in the basement, it was in a Victorian frame. There were a lot of reasons we surmised it was nineteenth century.” 

Now a member of the family that consigned the work, Jay Rappoport, is suing his aunt and cousins who he claims “pilfered” the painting from his dying grandmother without his knowledge or permission as an heir. Rembrandt’s painting was purchased by Rappoport’s grandfather, Philip Rappoport, in the 1930’s.  

Behind the scenes, there’s a conspiracy to get the painting basically laundered, from the Landaus [cousins of Jay Rappoport], who knew it was a Rembrandt, to the owners of the largest private collection of Rembrandts,” alleged Robert Sadowski, Rappoport’s lawyer.  

Rappoport is also suing almost everyone involved in the sale as additional “co-conspirators”, including the auction house staff and the painting’s current owner, American billionaire businessman Thomas Kaplan. Kaplan is an enthusiastic Rembrandt collector, having amassed a collection of Leiden period works. He reportedly bought ‘Unconscious Patient’ for $4 million (£2.9 million) from Talabardon & Gautier not long after they had acquired it. 

Sadowski added, “none of these possessors had good title to pass. Ultimately these things probably have a monetary settlement value, but there are creative ways to resolve these kinds of matters.” 

John Cahill, who is representing Kaplan and the Leiden Collection, said Rappoport’s claims were entirely “without merit”. Rappoport is also arguing that he should receive a sum greater than the painting’s sale price if it is not recovered. Cahill described this demand as “a cynical, opportunistic, and much-belated ploy to capitalise on the Rembrandt’s recent rediscovery and sale at high price”. 

This is not the first time that Rappoport has brought an action against a prominent figure. In 1998, Rappoport asserted claims of “copyright infringement” and “theft of trade secrets” against the film director Steven Spielberg, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Pizza Hut, Kellogg USA, and many more film and media firms for stealing his ideas. By the end of 1998, Rappoport announced in a letter that he was “willing to waive his claims” against these firms.  

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