How do you turn $5 into more than $1 million? Buy an old painting wrapped in a blanket at a garage sale near Los Angeles; then send it to a New York dealer whose first reaction is, “This is too good to be true,” and who, when she finds out it’s good and true, sells it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
That’s what happened to “Roger Leiter,” who asked me not to use his real name. He’s a 29-year-old actor who has appeared in films and on television.
The story begins three years ago. “I was driving to an antique-furniture store,” Leiter said in a telephone interview. “There was an estate sale, so I went into the house. There wasn’t anything of interest to me, so I went into the garage. I saw this painting on a shelf. I took the blanket off, and I liked it. It was of a bunch of pears and it was signed, ‘J. Decker.’
“I saw a woman in the garage and asked her, ‘How much is it?’ She said, ‘Five dollars.’ I said, ‘Could you tell me any history on it?’ She said, ‘I really don’t know, because it’s been in the garage for about 60 years.’ I gave her cash. I didn’t ask for a receipt.
“I’ve been buying art for the last four years. When I first saw the painting, I thought it was beautiful. I knew it was painted very well. So I hung it in my kitchen. Then, last October, I decided to have it framed. I thought that before I frame it I should find out what exactly it is.
“I went on the Internet. I Googled ‘J. Decker artist’ and up came Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I clicked on one of his paintings from Christie’s, and it looked similar to the one I had. Then up came Richard York Gallery [which specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American art]. I e-mailed them a digital photo. I called Christie’s. They expressed strong interest in it, but I decided to go with the gallery. I went with my gut. Their enthusiasm for selling it was contagious.”
Joseph Decker was born in 1853 in Germany; he moved with his family to the United States in 1867 and lived most of his life in Brooklyn. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York, while earning his living as a sign painter. He became known for his still lifes from the 1880s, close-ups of pears, apples, and nuts. According to the Grove Dictionary of Art, he was unable to support himself through his art alone and died in obscurity in 1924.
“I looked at the e-mail, and I said, ‘It’s too good to be true,’” said Meredith E. Ward, executive vice president of Richard York Gallery, which is based in Manhattan. “I asked him to send the painting. We paid for the shipping. When it arrived, I knew immediately it was a great find. It just looked right. I called him and told him it’s probably worth something in the vicinity of a million dollars. He asked, ‘You really think so?’ I told him the painting was in pristine condition—it had never been touched—that I’d like to clean it and put a new frame on it and start to offer it. He agreed.
“We offered it to the National Gallery. They acted quickly. A curator came in. They own two Deckers. They bought it in February.”
Although Ward declined to disclose the price, an informed source said it was more than $1 million.
Is Leiter euphoric? “A little bit,” he said. “You watch TV antiques programs and you say, ‘God, wouldn’t that be nice?’ When it happens to you, it’s so unbelievable. It’s hard for it to sink in.”
Does he usually go to garage sales? “No, but I should go to more.”
Later, Leiter told me, “I forgot to mention that I bought another painting in the garage that day, also for five dollars. It’s a still life. I keep meaning to e-mail it to Meredith.”
“Lightning can’t possibly strike twice in the same place,” commented Ward as this issue went to press. “But then again, you never know.”
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.