Ten People Who Found Riches in the Rubbish

Header Image Source: CNN Money

Which one of us hasn’t dreamed of finding a lost masterpiece in their attic? Or buying a trinket at a yard sale and later finding out it’s worth millions? Stories of people finding treasure in their trash abound, and we all wish we could tell one of our own.


This dream was put fresh into people’s minds after the recent news that a man in the USA found an 1854 Liberty Half Head Eagle coin worth over $1,000,000. The man was told several times that the coin was fake, and only 3 others were known to exist. But the truth will out, and the genuine find made the anonymous American genuinely rich.


But it’s not all about money, anything is worth a fortune to the right buyer, and some can only be considered priceless. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the fortunate folk who found true treasures in their trash.


Storage Wars Cash Haul


Image source: Mark Herpel

Ok so I know I said it wasn’t all about money, and it really isn’t, but this cash find is too good to leave off the list, so we might as well get it out of the way early.


Many of us have seen the hit TV show Storage Wars. The loud and proud treasure hunters of the programme buy abandoned storage containers for hundreds of dollars, and make tens of thousands selling what they find inside. They almost make it look easy. However one particular man, known only as Dave, didn’t need to flog any of his find, it was literally gold already.


When he opened the storage unit, which he had paid a measly $1,100 to take ownership of, Dave found half-a-million dollars’ worth of rare coins, gold and silver bullion inside. Initially attracted to buy the container by the ‘clean and easy to move’ box that contained the treasure, Dave was surprised to find it took three grown men to shift it, and even more surprised to find out why.


Although the unit was sold by the same company as run the famous TV show, the find was so unexpected that there were no cameras on the scene. Dave’s real time reaction to this ultimate treasure haul is as lost as the gold nearly was.


The World’s Most Expensive Tea Pot


Image source: The Tea Maestro

The moniker of the world’s most expensive tea party will always belong to the Boston uprising of 1773. One shipment of that thoroughly British drink, thrown into the ocean and not forgotten, eventually led to the loss of the United States as a colony. However an antique teapot, created before those events ever transpired, is sure to give any modern day contender a run for its money.


The teapot in question, missing a lid and with a repaired handle, sold for over $800,000 in February of this year. When you learn that the winning bidder was the Metropolitan Museum in New York it becomes even more apparent how valuable a find it really was.


Made by a man named John Bartlam way back in the 1760s, this teapot is the oldest known piece of porcelain made in the Americas. Decorated with two cranes endemic to South Carolina, and made from the local kaolin clay of that area, the teapot is a thoroughly American treasure. As fate would have it however, the pot was found in a sleepy town in England.


In fact the teapot had been bought for just £15 online two years before, being saved from the bin by a fortunate click of a mouse. It remains a mystery how the teapot crossed the Atlantic, but it is clearly not the first time that the British have undervalued their American holdings.


The $1,000,000 Painting


Image source: Sotheby’s, from the NYTimes

There are countless stories of people finding paintings once thought lost to the art world. Often their success proves what can never really be explained in words: the indefinable power of art. Perhaps none of them quite so clearly as this one however, the story of the “Tres Personajes” by Rufino Tamayo.


Painted in 1970, bought legitimately in 1977 for $55,000, and then stolen from a warehouse while the owners were moving house 6 years later, the canvas by Tamayo had a very brief life in the public eye. Despite this, the painting proved so memorable that almost twenty years later August Uribe, an expert at Sotheby’s, volunteered to present a TV programme campaigning for its return. The show aired, but nothing came of it.


Years pass and our scene moves from Houston to New York. Here a lady walking home finds a painting between two trashcans in an alley. Normally not the place to find world class art pieces, this painting held such power over her that she could not avoid taking it home, in spite of its large size and her tiny NYC apartment.


The painting hung in her living room, admired but ignored, for a long while. It wasn’t until her friends took notice of the gallery stickers on the reverse of the canvas and the prominent Tamayo signature on the front that Elizabeth Gibson, the finder of the painting, started to take note. Hearing of the TV show about the missing artwork, Gibson resolved to see it.


In testament to the fact that the internet wasn’t always what it is today, Gibson had to wait until the show was replayed on air. However it was played in Baltimore and not New York. So she took a bus and rented a motel room just to see it.


When Gibson finally saw the programme, she knew she had found a masterpiece. She accepted the $15,000 finder’s fee and returned the painting to its owner, who promptly sold it for $1,000,000, her husband who had bought it originally having died years before.


The $1,250,000 Painting


Image source: Wikiart

The last painting was saved from the street after its indelible impact was felt by a passing pair of eyes, however some artwork can remain hidden in plain sight for decades. This was particularly true of an Indiana man in 1999, who came to realise that the old picture he’d been using to cover a whole in his basement wall was worth enough to rebuild his entire house.


The painting had been bought as part of a job-lot years before, along with some furniture it reportedly cost ‘next to nothing’. It was only that the owner, who had been fortunate enough not to throw it away, was playing a board game called Masterpiece that the artwork’s true worth was discovered.


Noting a strong resemblance between the painting covering the whole in his wall and another painting featured in the board game, the anonymous owner made some enquiries. He was understandable surprised to discover he had an original piece by Martin Johnson Heade, an American master painter from the nineteenth century.


He would have been even more surprised to discover that the painting was still in its original frame, and even had its original glass protecting it from damage. A near perfect example of Heade’s work, it was sold to a museum in Houston for $1,250,000, after just 90 minutes of deliberation on their part.


The Rarest Baseball Card


Image source: Wikicommons

When we were all scrambling to collect Pokémon cards and Beanie Babies back in the 1990s, we all told ourselves it was an investment. These cards or toys may be worthless now, but in the future surely there will be someone willing to pay a fortune for them. Well someone else waited a whole lot longer than twenty years, and the fortune was nearly sold for a pittance anyway.


That someone will never be known, but it was 72-year-old Bernice Gallego who found an old baseball card in a box in her attic and, thinking it might be worth something, put it on eBay for the grand old price of $10.


The listing attracted hoards of questions from collectors, who couldn’t believe quite what they were looking at. This obviously turned Bernice on to the fact that what she had was more than a $10 card, and she removed the item from sale. It’s lucky for her that she did. Clearly the card in question wasn’t just any baseball card.


It was dated 1869, the first year that the first ever professional baseball team, the “Red Stocking B.B. Club of Cincinnati” played a season. Not only were they the first, they are still the only team to post a perfect season, playing and winning 65 games to 0 losses. Although I guess that isn’t so difficult if you are the only professional team in the world!


What Bernice nearly sold for $10, is estimated to be worth a whopping 10000x that amount.


A Declaration of Independence


Image source: Wikicommons

Although fans of Nicolas Cage may be under the impression that there is only one copy of the declaration of independence, and that his character in the movie National Treasure just had to steal it, this is not quite true. In fact there are 24 known copies of the first printing, and one of these was discovered not so long ago.


It was in the early 1990s when a collector from Pennsylvania bought a ‘dismal and dark’ landscape painting for just $4 at a local yard sale. Not because he liked the painting, but because he liked the frame. However upon closer inspection he found that the frame matched the painting, and was cheap, poorly made and worthless.


It wasn’t a complete waste of time however, as the painting wasn’t the only thing in the frame. A folded piece of paper tucked behind the canvas proved to be an original print of the declaration of independence. A print that had been folded up almost as soon as it was produced (the ink was still wet and had transferred onto the other side). It hadn’t been unfolded since 1776, and no-one even knew it existed.


The extreme rarity of the declaration was only compounded by the fact that it was unbound, unbacked, unrestored and unpreserved. The print sold for $2,242,000, the highest price ever paid for a piece of American history.


The Other Declaration


Image source: US Library of Congress

Continuing the theme of American treasures being found on British soil, we move onto another, arguably even more astonishing, declaration of independence. This one was uncovered just last year (2017) in a forgotten corner of a small records office in Sussex, a county in south-east England.


What makes this declaration special is not just that it was found all the way over the pond, but also that it was printed on parchment, not paper. In fact this parchment manuscript is absolutely unique, and can only be compared to the copy held at the national archives in Washington DC. That copy is viewed by millions of people each year, whereas this one hadn’t been seen by anyone in centuries.


Written in the 1780s, a few years after the original, there are some major differences between the Sussex Declaration and its counterpart. One of these is that the states are not listed in order or power or importance, but seemingly at random, symbolically representing how they are all one people.


The differences are a matter for more serious historians however. We can be happy knowing that a unique and irreplaceable piece of history has not been lost to time, and wondering how on earth it ended up in England of all places.


Fabergé in the USA


Image source: Wikicommons

It’s not all American treasures turning up overseas though, unsurprisingly a lot of foreign treasures turn up on American soil just the same. In recent years, two incredible treasures made by the world famous Russian jeweller Fabergé have turned up in the most unexpected of places.


Firstly, a small figurine of a member of the Tsar’s royal bodyguard, with sapphires for eyes and gold trim in his beard. It disappeared from history in 1934, after it was bought for $2,250 by one George Davis.


Disappeared that is, until five years ago. Due to some recent deaths in the family, the descendants of Mr Davis were sorting through the collected rubbish of decades in their grandparents’ attics when they stumbled across this Fabergé figurine, complete with the original Russian imperial bill of sale.


When you have an official piece of paper describing how the late Tsar commissioned the figure specifically for his wife, it’s hard to mistake the value, and these Davis’ certainly didn’t. It was sold for $5.2 million later that same year.


The second Fabergé was even more impressive. Found in a yard sale and bought for $13,000, this golden egg can hardly ever have been called trash. Fortunately for the anonymous buyer, every scrap dealer he tried to sell it too considered the $14,000 price too high.


It was only years later that the man googled the name etched on the inside and discovered that he had a Russian imperial Fabergé egg in his kitchen cabinet. Once given as a gift by Tsar Alexander III to his wife, it sold for $33,000,000, a price-tag befitting its heritage.


The Holy Grail of Comic Books


Image source: DC Comics

The bigger the superhero, the more the comic is worth. The older the comic, the more it is worth, and the better condition the comic is in, the more it is worth. Combine all three of these into a perfect copy of the 1938 edition of Action Comics no. 1 (the first appearance of Superman) and you have a comic book worth over $3 million.


This comic didn’t just mark the beginning of Superman, it marked the beginning of the entire superhero genre. And as it turns out, imaginary superheroes can save people in real life.


In 2010 a couple in the Southern United States, deep in debt and about to lose their house to the bank, found this ultra-rare comic in a box in their attic. The copy they found was rated at 8.5/10 on the condition scale, and is worth far more than their house ever was. It was estimated to be about the 100th copy even known to still exist and without exaggeration, it saved them.


Not everyone is quite as lucky as this couple, however not everyone needs to be. It was in 2013 that another copy of Action Comics no. 1 was found, this time by a decorator in Minnesota. It had, along with a load of old newspapers, been used for decades to help insulate a run-down house he was renovating.


This one, understandably due to how it had been used, only scored a 3.0/10 on the condition scale. A 3.0 was still enough to attract a bid of over $100,000 for the comic. However jealousy entered the family, and during a heated debate about the book and its worth, the back cover was ripped. That rip cost them over $70,000. The book was downgraded to a 1.5/10, and sold for a ‘mere’ $30,000.


Martin Luther King Jr., On Tape


Image source: Nobel Foundation

For the final entry on the list we will look at something that has been described as truly priceless. A piece of American history lost to violence and strife and recovered from an attic in Tennessee. A recording of an intimate and private conversation with Martin Luther King.


Made three years before his famous I Have a Dream speech, and seven years before his infamous assassination, the tape records Dr King speaking of peaceful protest, saying that …when the history books are written in future years, historians will have to record this movement as one of the greatest epics of our heritage…


He would never know how right his words would prove.


The tapes were recorded by an anonymous man who interviewed Dr King for a book he planned to write. Found by the man’s son decades later and after his father’s death, the tapes provide a unique and priceless insight into the mind of a man who changed the course of history.


Funnily enough they were purchased by the magician David Copperfield. He said that since nothing amazed him in his line of work, it was nice to find something that truly did. He has since donated them to the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel where King was killed.

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