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How a long-lost Rembrandt painting found its way to the Getty Museum

When the small painting with a slightly damaged surface and cracks in its wood backing materialised in September at an auction house in New Jersey, no one expected great things. First and foremost was its murky provenance: The name of the artist was unknown, and so was the date of its creation. The auction house estimated that the work would sell for $500 to $800.

“We had no idea when it came up to sale that there were about to be fireworks,” said John Nye, who runs the Bloomfield, N.J.-based Nye and Co.

In a matter of months, the seemingly unremarkable painting would become the talk of the international art world after it was judged to be a long-lost work by the 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn.

Museums and the art trade: dangerous liaisons?

The foggy world of art dealers’ historical relationships with museums is coming into sharper relief. When the National Gallery in London acquired the archive of the dealers Thomas Agnew and Sons in 2014, it marked a growing interest in exploring this history, following the Los Angeles-based Getty Research Institute’s acquisition of the Knoedler Gallery’s archive in 2012 and the Colnaghi archive’s installation at Waddesdon Manor.

The National Gallery’s conference on 1 and 2 April, Negotiating Art: Dealers and Museums 1855-2015, will explore this relationship through the latest research, taking a broad historical sweep, fr om mid-19th-century London to fin-de-siècle Paris and 1930s Detroit. It is an opportunity, says Alan Crookham, Research Centre manager at the National Gallery, to look at a complicated relationship. “How does it manifest itself in the exchange of expertise, or helping develop collections… And are people reluctant to talk about that because of the public nature of museums?”