The precious birds that escaped the water

Some years ago I went on what was doubtless the most unusual client visit I have ever been on. The daughter of an elderly man contacted me to say she had moved her father into assisted living and before she put the house up for sale she would like someone to come and look through his collections to see if there was anything valuable that could be auctioned. So a colleague and I drove out to a small 1940s-era ranch house in a New Jersey suburb, where we were met by the daughter. At that point she informed us that seven years earlier, the pipes in the kitchen had rotted out, burst and flooded the place, and that her father had never replaced them or done much cleaning up after the water receded. (He had built a small latrine in the garden for certain needs, but that was the only water available.) Then she let us in.

Deleted: Lisa Ramaci

  • American Arts and Crafts

I was a bit surprised to find such lovely things in the midst of such dirt and ruin. Little did I know that this was just a foretaste of even greater things to come.

The first thing we noticed were the smells of dust, mold and mildew, the second that there was "stuff'" everywhere. Books, board games, tchotchkes, 1950s furniture, toys, sports equipment, decoys and piles of miscellaneous junk - wherever I looked things were stacked, stuffed, bagged, boxed, or tumbling down from shelves. However, we had been in numerous hoarding situations like this before and were up for the challenge, so each selected a room to start in. I chose a small side room crammed with posters and placards piled on tables and leaning against the walls 20-deep, and waded in. The rug I was standing on had literally disintegrated - it had been soaked in the flood, and rather than pull it up the gentleman had let it simply rot in place.

For a while I waded through numerous pieces with little intrinsic value, then suddenly came across a small cache of original early 19th century hand-colored ornithological prints by John Gould, one of the great bird artists of all time.

Gould's plates are highly esteemed for their composition, accurate detail, and coloring, and I was a bit surprised to find such lovely things in the midst of dirt and ruin. Little did I know that this was just a foretaste of even greater things to come.

After going through the piles on the tables, I turned to the larger items that had been placed against the walls. Again, most of them were fairly uninteresting, but after flipping a large movie poster forward, suddenly, like a beacon out of the night, I found myself staring at what seemed to be an original first edition double-elephant portfolio print by John James Audubon, the most famous of all American natural history artists. Taken from his monumental publication "The Birds of America", which when completed ran to a total of 435 hand-colored prints, these huge images, depending on the birds depicted, can run anywhere from five to six figures at auction, so I looked for the "J. Whatman 1832" watermark, found on all legitimate first edition Audubons, for confirmation that this was the real deal.

Stunned upon realizing that it was, I fairly flew through the remaining ephemera and found two more. Carefully clutching my prizes, I made my way to the living room, where my colleague had unearthed several valuable books, but when he saw the Audubons and Goulds he agreed that I had definitely found the cream of the crop.

Curious, I asked the daughter where her father had acquired such valuable prints; she told me that in the 1940s he used to haunt the used book stores that once lined Fourth Avenue in Manhattan and from them bought all the posters and prints that had been stacked so haphazardly in the room I had been in. None of them had even been framed or hung, they were all still in the original cardboard backing and plasticene coverings he had purchased them in, and how they escaped being ruined in the flood I have no idea. What I did not ask was why, if he had such treasures, he had not sold some of them to fix his plumbing, but in the long run I am glad he did not, for if he had I would not have had the thrill of discovering them.

We sold the Audubons and Goulds for a combined total of about $100,000.00, thrilling the family no end. From then on, every time I did a client visit I would secretly hope to find more such surprising hidden treasures, but so far, no luck. I will just have to keep looking!