Seeking that million-dollar auction find
I was watching the 1942 movie “George Washington Slept Here” with Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan on TCM a couple nights ago. It was a delightful movie, and Jack Benny was his usual deceptively funny self.
There was one scene in the movie when the couple was contemplating how to raise $5,000 to keep their old farmhouse from being foreclosed. They were so desperate that they decided to ask their rich uncle for money, only to find out that he had none. At one point, the family’s dog (Toto from the “Wizard of Oz”) finds an old letter in a muddy boot that had been uncovered in the digging of a well on the property.
Inside the boot was a Revolutionary-War era letter from George Washington to the troops. This letter was worth 10 times the $5,000 they needed, one of the movie’s characters, a historical-society type, told them.
What a find!
That scene got me to thinking about how those of us who frequent auctions and flea markets are always looking for that million-dollar item tucked among some papers, or in an old muddy boot, or sealed in an old suitcase. I know I do. I examine everything I purchase at auctions. I read through papers and carefully examine photographs. I pat down the sides of boxes. I lift up loose edges.
I haven’t been so lucky. But a few people have, and I decided to search Google for those folks who had actually found a fortune concealed in an item they bought at auction. I didn’t come across a lot of people, so our chances aren’t so great. Here’s what I found, though:
In 2006, a music equipment technician bought a rolled parchment in a thrift store in Nashville, Tenn., for $2.48. It turned out to be an 1823 copy of the Declaration of Independence. It had been donated by a man who had bought it 10 years earlier at a yard sale, and it had hung on a wall in his garage until he decided to clean out the place. The document was one of 200 commissioned by John Quincy Adams when he was secretary of state in 1820. It sold in 2007 for $477,650.
In 1989, a Philadelphia financial analyst bought an old picture for $4 at an antique market in Adamstown, PA. He dismantled the framing and found a copy of the Declaration of Independence. It was one of what’s called a “Dunlap Broadside,” the first published copies of the document by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap on the night of July 4, 1776 . About 200 were printed and only 25 are said to have survived. It sold in 1991 for $2.42 million. The document was resold in 2000 for $8.1 million to television producer Norman Lear, who took it on road trips across the country for all to share.
This year, a researcher at the British National Archives found another copy of a “Dunlap print” of the Declaration of Independence. No one’s sure how it got there. I doubt if the National Archives plans to sell it.
Nineteen years ago, a 16-year-old boy paid $7 for a first-edition copy of the first volume of “The Federalist,” a series of essays from 1788 encouraging ratification of the Constitution. This year, the man, a National Guardsman from Indiana, sold it for $80,000 at auction.
In 2008, a woman in Fresno, Calif., who with her husband went often to estate sales, was going through some of their stuff when she came across a baseball card of the Red Stocking B.B. Club of Cincinnati. She put it on Ebay, starting with a $10 bid, until someone urged her to take it down and research the card. She did, and found that it was the oldest baseball card in history, from 1869. The card sold at auction for $75,285 in February.
Closer to home, an auctioneer at one of my favorite auction houses told me of a bidder who found tucked in an auctioned item some autographed photos of celebrities who had appeared on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Apparently, the previous owner had stood outside the studio and collected the autographs. The bidder is hanging onto the autographs until the celebrities have passed on, hoping to cash in on them.
My best finds? Nothing worth close to a million bucks. But I’ll keep looking, and you should, too. Sometimes, it’s the hunt itself that counts.