In 2015, Paris dealer Bertrand Talabardon spotted a painting in an online sales catalogue from a small, New Jersey auction house. Listed as a “Continental School” work by an unknown 19th-century painter, the pre-sale estimate was a humble $500 to $800.
Talabardon was pretty sure that was off the mark. As a specialist in Old Master paintings, he could tell that it was an early 17th-century Dutch painting—possibly by a young
or, if not, by his purported teenage studio-mate,
Although the photograph in the catalogue wasn’t very good, Talabardon and his partner Bertrand Gautier decided to go for it. Another dealer had the same hunch, and the resulting bidding war drove the price up to $870,000. Talabardon and Gautier prevailed and, almost immediately, received confirmation from Rembrandt expert Ernst van de Wetering that the work was genuine: It was one of a series of paintings of the five senses that Rembrandt made when he was only 18 or 19.
They sold the small oil painting, The Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell) (c. 1624–25), to art collector Thomas S. Kaplan reportedly for $5 million—more than five times the purchase price. Now it resides in Kaplan’s extensive Leiden Collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings, one of 11 Rembrandts the billionaire has acquired over the years.
In auction parlance, what Talabardon and Gautier found was a “sleeper”—a misattributed artwork that, because of the oversight of an expert, is priced far below its actual value. A thriving culture has developed around the search for such sleepers. In a sense, all dealers who handle Old Masters, antiques, and antiquities are constantly on the lookout for such works (although they usually call them “discoveries” once they’re identified). They are joined by a handful of museum curators and individual treasure hunters who fancy themselves sleeper-spotters as well.
Most sleepers are found at local auction houses, flea markets, or even carpet sales, where organizers just don’t have the resources to accurately attribute major works of art. But they have been known to pop up at international outfits such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s from time to time. Christie’s South Kensington branch, for example, was a fertile source of sleepers until it closed earlier this year, said Hazlitt Group chairman Brian Allen.
The Hazlitt Group includes the Old Master art dealership Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, known for its high success rate with sleepers. They’ve discovered works by
and the Rembrandt self-portrait Rembrandt Laughing
(c. 1626), which they bought at an English country auction in 2007 and later sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum
—reportedly for tens of millions of dollars.