Go ahead, admit it. Sometimes you dream it could happen to you. Yes,
of course, you understand full well Lady Luck is a fickle mistress, that good fortune is nothing to bank on. They won’t catch you at the casinos or waiting in line for a lottery ticket. Your preferred investment strategy is straightforward indexing and bonds with triple-A ratings.
Every once in a while, though, perhaps while flicking through channels, you pause for a moment on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. As Edgar and Connie from Damariscotta discover the strange old tuba they found in their uncle’s attic may have once been the property of John Philip Sousa and worth enough to pay their grandson’s college tuition, you recall your last visit to the attic and the wheels of your mind start to turn.
It does really happen, too. Paul Provost, senior vice president and director of estates, trusts, and appraisals at the international auction house Christie’s, remembers the time someone came in with a painting found at a rummage sale they thought might be worth something.
It turned out the painting was by Martin Johnson Heade, an early-American painter, and worth $882,500.
“From a realistic point of view, this sort of thing often gets a great deal of press and may get some people too excited,” Provost warns, noting that Christie’s gets hundreds of queries daily and he, in fact, doesn’t do appraisals himself. “Most people have a sense of the value of the items they have, and usually when they don’t, it’s because they think the item is worth more than it actually is. But sometimes you do hit the jackpot.”
The following is a selection of Gold Coast residents for whom that jackpot turned out to be more than the stuff of dreams.
Trapped in the closet
For years it lay in a closet, a painting of a scowling, hirsute man covered in soot and candle grease. Jan and Clare White’s Westport home features plenty of original art, but mostly brighter works that have the additional advantage of being discernible with the naked eye. This piece, Jan recalls, was “sort of dark and bleak.”
It was liberated from its mothball incarceration only when Clare’s mother, the painting’s previous owner, came to visit. Little was known of its origins, except that her mother had gotten it during the 1940s when she lived in Brazil and frequented the country’s wealthiest Catholic social set, in which religious iconography were commonly exchanged as presents.
“I thought it was just an oil painting some monk made in a monastery in Brazil,” Jan says.
An impish raconteur whose snowy beard and Czech-British accent makes one think of the late actor Peter Ustinov, Jan grew up in a family of painters. A long career as a graphic design consultant further enhanced his eye for fine visual art of all types, but there seemed little to prize in that dingy piece.
In 1995, after Clare’s mother had passed away, Jan and Clare began to wonder about the worth of another painting her mother had given them. They sent a photograph of it to Sotheby’s for a free appraisal, and, as an afterthought, they also sent a photo of the one that had been in the closet.
The first painting was valueless. But the closeted painting turned out to be something else: a work by Masolino da Panicale, who wasn’t Brazilian, but, rather, Italian, and plied his craft more than half a century before Columbus reached the New World. Masolinos are on display in some of Europe’s finest museums and cathedrals and in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
“I think you can get $50,000 to $75,000 for it,” the appraiser told the Whites.
The appraiser was wrong. When the gavel finally went down after furious bidding, the piece, actually painted with a pre-oil substance made with egg called tempera and by now much cleaned up and restored, had fetched $270,000. By then, Jan’s arm was nearly numb from Clare’s constant pinching. “I still have black-and-blue marks there, I’m sure,” he says.
The Whites certainly have something to remember that day by: a tidy nest egg. As a freelancer, Jan no longer has to worry about a pension plan — or the lack thereof. He and Clare now have a
full-service endowment plan courtesy of the early Renaissance by way of Brazil. “I don’t know who it was sold to, but after that we settled our bills, sold the two clunkers we had and bought a new car, and put the rest into investments,” Jan says.
He says they never would have thought of keeping the piece once they were informed of its value. “It would have to be put in a safe, and what good was it to us in a safe?” he asks. “It had no sentimental attachment, except it had belonged to my mother-in-law. Well, after selling it, we’ve been smiling about it ever since. She posthumously gave us the best thing anyone ever could, a sense of independence.”
John Reznikoff pulls the tarpaulin off the car he has parked in a Westport garage, revealing the bone-white chassis of a 1963 Lincoln Continental. A few years ago, he bought it for $17,500 from the inventory of a defunct establishment in Florida called the Museum of National Tragedy; now he expects to sell it for $1 million.
Though a fine-looking period piece in its own right, what’s tragic about the car is what accounts for the sticker shock. On November 21, 1963, its top down, the Continental glided through the streets of Fort Worth, Texas, while President John F. Kennedy waved to sightseeing throngs from its back seat. The following morning the car carried him, his wife, Jacqueline, and Govenor John Connally to the airport for a short flight on Air Force One to Dallas’s Love Field. With typical macabre whimsy, Reznikoff dubs the vehicle “the last ride Kennedy survived.”
“Look in here, you can see the upholstery is original,” Reznikoff says, pointing through the rear-door window. “Burgundy leather, and you can see it’s worn. I purposely didn’t touch it. I wanted it to be exactly what he sat on that day.”
A lot else about the car was touched, or retouched as it were, to the tune of more than $60,000, several times what he paid for it. “It was in rough shape,” he says.
Remarkable find? Reznikoff thinks so. A professional seeker and seller of historical curiosities ranging from hair follicles of the dead and famous to presidential correspondence, the Wilton resident claims a fierce affection for all things Kennedy. He still can’t believe he got the car for what he paid. But the vehicle came with a fuzzy provenance and was priced to go at an auction Reznikoff likened to a cattle call. “I thought it was something good, but I didn’t know how good,” he said. “I thought if it turns out to be true, great. If not, I rolled the dice.”
Long research followed, including amassing sales slips, car registrations and letters of authentication. Footage Reznikoff found from a 1964 documentary on the assassination, Four Days in November, clearly place Kennedy inside the Continental on the morning of his death, as do news photographs.
A lanky, youthful man with shaggy brown-black locks of hair framing a vinegary countenance, Reznikoff has been collecting historical items for fun and profit since 1979. His Westport office, at the site of an old mill building on Richmondville Avenue, contains such notable objects as a typewriter used by Hemingway to a wine glass Washington drank from, all of which Reznikoff points out with startlingly offhanded casualness. He is often in the news, like last year when an Ohio barber tried to sell him hair clipped from the head of Neil Armstrong.
Fascination with the first Kennedy assassination has hardly abated more than forty years on, and anything that can be firmly connected to it carries value well beyond its original worth. The car Kennedy died in, owned by the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, could fetch as much as $20 million on the open market, Reznikoff estimates.
Reznikoff has marketed his JFK auto aggressively enough, even putting it on eBay in 2003. Though a seven-figure buyer remains as elusive as that figure on the Grassy Knoll, Reznikoff is not especially concerned.
“It is a great calling card to have, something that puts me on the map,” he says, running his hand across the car’s shiny hood before putting the tarp back on. “Even the Secret Service was down here once to take a look at it.”
Absolutely sweet marie
You don’t have to walk through the Consign It storefront on Mason Avenue in Greenwich to know there’s something unusual inside. The front lawn has a quaint picket fence, as well as zebra-skin rugs, grandfather clocks, drop-leaf tables and framed prints of British gentlemen in plus fours wielding mashies and niblicks.
“Over the years, you can imagine everything that’s come through here,” says Randi Conway, a statuesque blonde who, with her wide smile and pink gingham shirt, resembles Doris Day. “We have 10,000 consigners in our system, and some of them have thousands of things. Just compulsive buyers and sellers.”
With such turnover, Consign It has had its share of remarkable finds, seemingly normal objets d’art that turned out to be very special, like an eighteenth-century painting someone found hanging on the store wall years ago. Then there was that day in 2000 Randi discovered
a refugee from the French Revolution in the living room of a Lyons Farm condominium.
As Randi looked over the sterling and paintings tidily arrayed in the home of a recently deceased fellow who had lived in the condo complex, one item caught her eye: a marble-top ormolu-mounted mahogany chest of drawers that looked special. Indeed, it was. The mark of the furniture maker was found and the chest dated more than 200 years old.
“We knew it was a really good piece, and we decided to set it aside and put it up for a silent auction,” Randi recalls. “You never know with those things, but we figured we might be able to get something in the $45,000 to $65,000 range.”
Yet when she opened the envelopes from the various bidders at the end of the day, she discovered to her surprise that one couple had offered $85,000. Later, after the transaction had been completed, Randi discovered that the couple had seen something no one else had, a second tiny mark that distinguished the piece as one that belonged to that famous Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.
“There was even a matching piece for it that had been in the Tuileries Palace where Marie Antoinette lived, so it was totally verifiable,” Randi says.
Randi still thinks about the piece having gotten away from her, though to be fair she did think enough of it to put it aside. The episode fuels a notion many people have in her trade, of the jewel waiting to be uncovered.
“There are not that many one-of-a-kind pieces, even in Greenwich,” she says. “But every once in a while, you find that one thing that is extra special, and you realize how much fun it is being in the business you’re in.”
Bidding fatigue? That’s when to get a bargain
Mimi Findlay’s most remarkable find wasn’t all that remarkable in one sense: She first saw the 100-year-old cabinet in a photograph in an arts and antiques periodical advertising an upcoming auction. How she managed to land the item at the auction was the remarkable part, something she ascribes to what might be called “bidding fatigue.”
It was September 1987. The place: a tiny auction house in Massachusetts. Mimi, who lives in New Canaan, was one of maybe sixty people there, several like her with their minds on getting a cabinet built by the Herter Brothers, New York–based interior designers and furniture makers during America’s Gilded Age, from 1865 to 1901.
The Herters had been out of favor for a while, their style so ornate and fancy-schmancy that a previous generation of owners had been known to obscure the Herters’ trademark gilt trims and inlays with dark varnish or linseed oil. Somehow, many Herter pieces survived those dark ages. They were part of what is called the Aesthetic Movement, and they went through different styles as they evolved,” Mimi says. “Early on, they worked in a style called Renaissance Revival. Later, they did more in the Oriental style, which became the fashion of that period.”
The Herters were still in their Renaissance Revival period when they worked on the Norwalk manor house of LeGrand Lockwood, railroad tycoon and financier who went LeBust after getting caught in the Gold Panic of 1869. Before that, Lockwood had hired Gustave and Christian Herter to craft doors, wainscotings and various furnishings in several rooms of his mansion.
Almost a hundred years later, while the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion moldered in quiet obscurity, Findlay was one of many area volunteers who successfully fought to save it from demolition. Later, she focused on restoring the house to its former grandeur, collecting stereopticons of the interior and experiencing the Herters’ work in something close to its three-dimensional glory. A love affair began.
“They were so inventive,” she notes. “You never know what the next piece is going to look like.”
That may have helped Findlay land her prize in 1989. A Herter cabinet was brought out, somewhat reminiscent of their later Asian-inspired period, and after furious bidding, it sold for $30,000. A buzz filled the small room. “Did someone just pay $30,000 for a Herter cabinet?” “Did you catch who that was?” Clearly those Herter boys were getting hot again!
Meanwhile, a new piece was on the auction floor, another Herter cabinet, though done in their earlier Renaissance Revival style and similar to what one might find at LeGrand Lockwood’s estate. It had been smudged with varnish, though Mimi had taken a look before the auction and seen the bright inlays beneath waiting to be uncovered. She waved her paddle at the auctioneer as unobtrusively as she could, for this was the piece she had traveled to Massachusetts for. “I snuck my paddle up while everyone was talking, and I got it for $5,000,” she recalls. “I should have paid $20,000 for it, and I wouldn’t have, because I didn’t have deep pockets.”
After extensive restoration work, including removing the varnish with a Q-Tip and replacing a missing brass cabinet mount by cloning its twin on the other side of the piece, Mimi had a bravura example of Gilded Age grandeur on her hands, a hand-carved rosewood marvel of gold leaf and exotic filigree. She sold it a year later for $50,000.
Mimi still keeps her eye out for Herter pieces. Last year, she found a couple of chairs, made for LeGrand Lockwood himself, which she bought for $11,000 and sold to the mansion’s public-trust keepers at cost. They are now back in the house where they rest in glory.
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