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From Trash to Treasure: Ansel Adams Work and Other World Treasures Found at Yard Sales

 Ansel Adams photo

Ten years ago at a yard sale, Rick Norsigian purchased 65 negatives for $45 (and even had managed to haggle the price down from $70) that a team of experts has authenticated as being the lost set of photographs by Ansel Adams.  These negatives were believed to have been destroyed in a 1937 darkroom fire, but somehow ended up at a garage sale in Fresno, California. They are estimated to be worth $200 million today.   (Update: Just after this blog was posted, we have learned that Adams' heirs are disputing this claim and question the authenticity.)

This amazing story is but one of many in the annals of lost world treasures serendipitously found at, of all places, the garage sale. Many things come to mind when we hear about a garage sale or rummage sale, but several in particular stick out most prominently in our minds: "stuff", and lots of it; curbside junk; aimless, weekend jaunts through suburban neighborhoods following those "Garage Sale" cardboard signs; old clothes and toys with time-worn characteristics; 25 cent price tags; and last but not least, the thrilling potential to discover and own a real treasure passed down from history or the art realm.  I find this last aspect the most intriguing not because of the famous or valuable object of the discovery, but mainly because of the story or series of fateful events leading to the discovery. If the work is indeed authentic, how on earth did those Ansel Adams negatives travel from his studio in the 1920's all the way to a home in Fresno 80 years later?  The sad part is, this story, and many others, will most likely remain a mystery.

The Yard Sale: Part of the American Culture and Dream

According to Dr. Lori, an American art historian and appraiser, yard sales in America developed after World War II, at a time when people were starting to rebuild their lives and their homes, especially in suburbia. They bore a resemblance to the French flea market, a popular tradition that is still celebrated today in Paris, and so you could that they are an extension of the European flea market. Americans would sell their accumulated, unwanted household items on their front lawns to the community. Today, there are about 6 to 9 million garage sales held every year, and the average that a seller earns from the sale is $100-$200.  Dr. Lori's view is that sellers do not feel as empowered by these sales as do the buyers. Many buyers are motivated by either great bargains or the great treasure hunt - the thrill of the hunt.  Underneath the heap of someone else's junk could be a trove of art work or historic objects that, sold for a few dollars by an unknowing garage sale host, can fetch millions of dollars for the buyer.  This doesn't sound like a shabby investment when all a person would need to do is wake up early on Saturday morning, get in the car, follow the cardboard signs, and rummage through mounds of "stuff" to possibly find that lost world-famous painting.  The thing is, this scenario has occurred for a lucky few, and became their American dream come true. 

Treasure Trove Stories

A 1776 Copy of the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence Copy, one of 26 existing

This discovery was truly amazing, not only because Thomas Jefferson penned one of my my all-time favorite quotes ("We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ."), but also because of how this prized piece of literature that co-existed with the birth of our nation was found.  On the evening of July 4, 1776, printer John Dunlap created 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence's final draft that had been submitted by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by the Second Continental Congress that morning.  The next day, John Hancock ordered these copies disseminated to the colonies' leaders, as well as to King George.  Today, only 26 of the 200 copies are known to exist, and this copy (pictured here) was sold in 1989 for $4 in Pennsylvania.  The seller was probably not aware that on the back of the picture frame that they sold for $4 was this historic literary mammoth of a treasure, which was eventually bought in 2000 for $8.1 million. 

Weegee's Prints and Letters

In 2003, a woman from Indiana stopped at a garage sale in Kentucky following a camping trip with a friend.  She purchased a trunk with zebra stripes which, unbeknownst to her, held some clothes, 210 black and white vintage photos and 65 letters.  She had considered throwing them away before taking the photos and letters to a rare documents dealer and later realized that they were the work of famed New York photographer named "Weegee."  Weegee was a popular photographer in the 1950's and '60's who had influenced Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol.  The work had been passed down from Weegee's companion to the International Center of Photography in New York, and how it ended up in Kentucky would be anyone's guess. The collection is now owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

"Ripening Pears" Painting by Joseph Decker 

"Ripening Pears"

In 2001, an actor in Los Angeles stumbled across a 19th century painting "Ripening Pears" by Joseph Decker at a garage sale.  Decker was a still life painter who worked with edible objects such as fruits. It had been wrapped up in a blanket at the yard sale and sold to him for $5.  The seller indicated it had been sitting in her garage for 60 years.  This painting was sold for $1 million in 2004 and now is housed at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. 

Carolina Inn Painting by Jeff MacNelly

"Carolina Inn"

Jeff MacNelly was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip "Shoe", who did an Impressionist style painting of the historic Carolina Inn.  The painting was lost in the 1970's and then later ended up at a yard sale in High Point, North Carolina in the 1990's.  The painting's buyer recognized the signature and contacted MacNelly who then authenticated it himself with a signed letter.  This painting is now back with its original owner, the Carolina Inn.



Copy of Vase from Quianlong Dynasty (1736-1795)

A vase purchased at a Florida garage sale in 2007 fetched $1.2 million at an auction in 2009.  The vase is made of Imperial porcelain and is said to be a 20th century copy of a ceramic from the Quianlong Dynasty.


The Authentication Stage and a Word of Caution

 If you do become lucky enough to find a potentially valuable item at the garage sale, or even at a flea market, thrift shop, or Ebay, you may want to bear in mind that most items - even though the real McCoy, may need to have authentication involving qualified experts and professional appraisers and, ultimately, expenses.  Even though a buyer may be familiar with a particular artist or writer, or the item has the artist's signature, the item must go through the requisite, and often long, laborious process of being examined, evaluated and appraised by various experts in the relevant field.  Sometimes this could take years and years.  The Ansel Adams negatives recently declared authentic and verified by a team of experts waited through almost ten years since they were purchased at the Fresno garage sale.  Involved in the task of confirming the works' authenticity were experts in photography, evidence, handwriting analysis, and meteorologists.  However, Adams' heirs are disputing these experts' findings. And remember, don't be easily fooled by hearsay or what a seller claims is authentic.  This is how many scams on Ebay become successful and pull a "Madoff" on you and later make off with your money, leaving you with a fake item: the Ebay seller provides a good amount of photos and a long, detailed description of the item along with a convoluted story when in fact the item for sale is a fake.  The buyer's natural inclination is to believe the item is authentic just because of all the information being given.  Fraud in the art world is pretty rampant. So caution and level-headedness will pay off.  Here is a great resource ("Art Forgeries") for advice and tips on how to be vigilant and exercise caution against art forgers when dealing with works of art.

"Who the #$%& is Jackson Pollock?"

The painting Teri Horton believes is a Jackson Pollock

One infamous case illustrates the headache and drawn-out process in trying to get an item verified and acknowledged by the art community.  The case spawned a documentary titled "Who the #$%& is Jackson Pollock?" and began when Teri Horton found a painting at a thrift shop in San Bernardino, California.  She paid $5 for this painting which she believes was done by the famous artist Jackson Pollock.  She has since enlisted a forensic expert and art dealer in her quest for the painting to be acknowledged by scholars and the art world, but has been rejected.  The painting is up for grabs for a measely $50 million - one person bid $9 million on it but was flatly rejected by Horton. 

Another case involves Pablo Picasso, the Spanish painter whom everyone has heard of unless you have been orbiting the Earth since conception.  In 2007, a couple bought a painting that they were sure was done by Picasso and paid $1 at the North Carolina yard sale.  They hoped the painting would be worth at least $200,000 or even $1 million.  But after experts examined it at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., the painting is now believed to be a print of the original and worth $2500.

 The yard sale experience motivates both the simple bargain hunter and the wide-eyed adventurer seeking the Holy Grail of other people's - for lack of a better word, junk. For some, it can be a brief journey to bring home that shining teapot set, a simple treasure of sorts; and for others, it can mean a long, arduous journey - but still rewarding, to that "shining city on a hill" fortified by industry experts' and enthusiasts' valuation system. It all depends on how a person assigns value to her trash or treasure. 

Theresa Le