At one time or another we’ve all dreamt of stumbling upon a fortune. Fantasized about immense wealth simply falling into our laps. It’s the driving force behind the success of state lotteries and the reason old men sweep lonely beaches with rented metal detectors. The idea that a better life, a bigger house, or a faster car could be one lucky Keno pick away motivates us to look for wealth in unlikely places.
One such place — the common garage sale — has promised riches to more than one fortunate soul.
Tony Marohn was a classic treasure hunter. Scouring the bins at local estate sale, he stumbled upon a cache of documents which he promptly purchased for $5. Among the documents, Marohn found an antique stock certificate from the Palmer Union Oil Company. Tracing the company’s heritage, Marohn discovered that it had a relation — and was, in fact, linked — to the Coca Cola Company. By Marohn’s estimation, the certificate entitled him to 1.8 million shares in the company.
A protracted legal battle prevented Marohn from cashing in on his find during his lifetime, though his tenacity sheds light on peoples’ desire to receive “something for nothing.” It highlights that often repressed craving inside of us that yearns for power, status and influence without a cost. And while the American Dream is often portrayed as having a rewarding job and a loving family, the human dream is, perhaps, a bit simpler: no job and a whole lot of free everything.
Here, we look at those rare few who — through some combination of shrewdness, timing and sheer, dumb luck — have transformed that dream into a reality. From a discarded box of negatives that granted their owner a new lease on life to a mobile home secret that reads stranger than fiction, we examine seven million dollar garage sale finds.
7 Ansel Adams Negatives
Value: $200 million
Rick Norsigian paid $45 for two boxes of glass plates in 2000. Attracted to the plates because they depicted Yosemite National Park, a place he had worked as a young man, Norsigian tucked the boxes away for the next two years.
After researching the plates — which turned out to be photographic negatives — Norsigian became convinced that they had been captured by the father of American photography himself, Ansel Adams. Taken between 1919 and 1930, connoisseurs contend that the photographs represent, “a missing link of Ansel Adams […] and his career.”
With the plates authenticated, Nosigian was shocked to learn that the negatives could be worth upwards of $200 million. Though it could take a number of years to realize that figure, Norsigian is — without doubt — a man who understands the value of patience.
6 Northern Song Dynasty Bowl
Value: $2.2 million
Imagine leaving $3 million sitting on your mantel for five years. Such was the case for an anonymous family in New York.
In 2007, the family purchased a small, nondescript ceramic bowl at a local garage sale. For the next few years, they displayed the five-inch bowl above their fireplace. Driven to discover more information about their find, the family consulted experts who revealed that the bowl was over a thousand years old, dating back to the Northern Song Dynasty.
The lucky family realized a staggering 730,000% return on their investment recently when the bowl sold for $2.2 million during a Sotheby’s auction. The purchaser, a dealer named Giuseppe Eskenazi, said the reason he shelled out so much was that there were only two known examples of the bowl’s style.
5 Jackson Pollock Painting
Value: $50 million
The subject of the fascinating documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?, Teri Horton is a former long-haul truck driver and a bit of a harsh negotiator. In the mid 90s, Horton purchased an “ugly” painting from a local yard sale. With no real use for the painting, Horton considered selling it but reconsidered after a friend suggested it may have been created by renowned abstract painter Jackson Pollock.
After years of navigating the occasionally cruel — and often pretentious — art world, during which time skeptics dismissed her beliefs by asserting that the painting, “[did] not have the soul of a Pollock,” Horton hired a forensic art expert. The expert, Paul Biro, was able to match a partial fingerprint on Horton’s painting to one that appeared on a paint can from Pollock’s studio.
4 Andy Warhol Sketch
Value: $2.1 million
In 2012, Andy Fields went to a garage sale in Las Vegas and paid $5 for a child’s artwork. The drawing, a colored pencil sketch of 1930s crooner Rudy Vallée, turned out to be the work of a 10-year-old Andy Warhol.
Fields, who performed “extensive research to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that it is genuine” claims to have contacted experts from both Sotheby’s and Bonhams auction houses, both of which — according to him — expressed a belief that the piece was authentic. With the legwork done, Fields turned to eBay. Listing the piece at a whopping $2.1 million, Fields’ auction description boldly proclaimed that, “[m]any people believe this to be the earliest known pop art piece that Andy Warhol ever created.”
3 Declaration Of Independence
Value: $2.42 million
It sounds like a plot ripped straight out of the National Treasure franchise, but in 1989 an unassuming analyst from Philadelphia discovered a folded print of the Declaration of Independence stowed away beneath a faded oil painting.
Purchased for $4 at a Pennsylvania flea market, a shrewd friend of the buyer encouraged the man to have the document appraised. As luck would have it, the tattered copy turned out to be one of only 500 official copies from the Declaration’s first printing. Of those 500 copies, only 23 were known to have survived the passing of the years. By the time the gavel dropped at Sotheby’s in 1991, the print had more than doubled its $1.2 million estimate, selling for an astounding $2.42 million.
2 Imperial Faberge Egg
Value: $30 million
In 2004, an unidentified man purchased a golden egg at a flea market. Intending to sell it for its scrap value, he ended up holding onto it for ten years until — just this year — it was discovered that the egg was one of the eight missing imperial Faberge eggs.
Fabergé eggs, created by Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé, have a long and storied history. Of Fabergé’s creations, the most notable are those he created as Easter gifts for relatives of former Russian Tsars. Known as “Imperial” eggs, these jeweled masterpieces have been treasured — and purchased for exorbitant amounts — by collectors throughout the ages.
Our fortuitous flea market picker, however, was initially unable to connect with this well-funded audience and had trouble unloading the egg. That all changed in 2014 when he contacted Kieran McCarthy, an expert in Russian artifacts, who recounted that his “spine was shivering” as he estimated the egg’s value at nearly $30 million.
1 Pablo Picasso Painting
Value: $2 million
Of all the places to stumble upon an original Picasso, who would guess that one would show up at a trailer park in Shreveport, Lousiana? For Teisha McNeal, however, that improbability became real when — in 2009 — she paid Edith Parker $2 for a painting — purported to be a fake — that was signed by the master. According to Parker, she “kept looking at this picture and said, Well it don't look like much, and it was in this cheap little frame.”
After learning of the paintings value, Parker — undoubtedly disappointed by McNeal’s good fortune — lamented, “Oh my God, I could have quit work and gotten out of this trailer park.”