Some of the most fascinating antiques in the world are currently sitting inside a dingy pawn shop. This is what makes Antiques Roadshow so interesting: The fact that somewhere out there is a priceless artifact from another century, just waiting to be found. But what if the experts don’t see that value right away?
Well, a retired engineer watching the show from his couch at home knew experts were making a mistake when they appraised an item covered in “unbreakable” code. Determined to uncover the hidden message, he set out to answer the question appraisers couldn’t — but it wasn’t going to be easy.
One of the most special items Antiques Roadshow has ever seen really doesn’t seem like much. In fact, at first glance, it looks like a dime-a-dozen wooden box your grandmother once used to store things like bobby pins or fancy soap…
But this wooden box goes back further than bobby pins. In fact, it goes back even further than your own grandmother. The small box, which can fit in the palm of your hand, is engraved with the year 1785 — almost 235 years ago.
Still, its age isn’t what makes this box so special. The truly captivating characteristic of the box is the numbers engraved around the lid. They made for a beautiful design, but as it turned out, they were much more than just decoration.
When Antiques Roadshow-viewer Paul Wisken started the episode featuring the box, he figured it would be like any other — except it wasn’t. As soon as the mysterious box appeared on screen, he was intrigued. The numbers stood out to him.
Meanwhile, the box’s owner and Antiques Roadshow experts answered the easy questions: It was a Georgian cosmetics box, and as the tradition of that romantic time period goes, it was probably a gift given from a gentleman to his lover.
Moreover, the box was purchased for around 20 pounds (AKA 30 dollars) by the owner’s father. That was all they knew about the box’s lineage of owners. Then, they looked to the outside of the box, where a romantic message was clearly engraved.
“The ring is round and hath no end, so unto my love, now my friend,” the engraving read. What left even the Antiques Roadshow experts stumped, though, were the weird assemblage of numbers on the lid of the box.
The said, Antiques Roadshow expert Jon Baddeley was able to give some insight as to the box’s centuries-old origin. He knew it once held rouge or makeup patches, and Jon was even able to confirm the name of the original gift-giver.
The name was J Jones. As for the numbers, Jon was as flummoxed as everyone else. “You’ve brought in this tiny little box and many many questions,” Jon told the owner. He was forced to say something no historian ever wants to say.
“I think with this one I’m going to be at a bit of a loss,” he said. He estimated the box’s value at $1,500, adding that it had “sentimental value.” Everyone wondered if cracking the code would add to the monetary value, but there was no Rosetta Stone to reveal the answers.
There was Paul, though, who, back at home, had hatched a plan. “As soon as I heard them say ‘we can’t solve it,’ I thought, ‘I bet I can,’” Paul said. As confident as he was, the retired engineer had his work cut out for him.
His natural affinity for numbers and his love of crossword puzzles made this “too much of a challenge to resist, ”as Paul said. He hoped that his lifetime of amateur code-cracking would help him solve the puzzle once and for all.
Kevin Van Paassen
The grandfather created a system to match digits with letters, starting with double 8s he assumed represented LLs. From there, his complex number system grew. J Jones kept floating into his mind — what was he trying to conceal?
Even after 5 hours of work, Paul was unconvinced that he had cracked the code. He had a smattering of words, including “small” and “love,” but couldn’t figure out what the message truly said. Days went by, and still Paul was stumped…
Until a few nights later, that is. He woke up “with a click,” as he said, and realized the word that had eluded him: “gift.” As a whole, the message read, “The gift is small but love is all.”
Finally cracking the code was a triumphant moment for Paul, but he was modest about his accomplishment. “It was a beautiful challenge thrown in my lap,” he said, and he even proclaimed himself as “a bit of a nerd.”
The fact that the message could be cracked at all was important, since secret codes are pretty much created to be broken. This certainly brought to light even more questions about the lovers who first exchanged this small gift.
The biggest question is, why hide the lovely message behind code? The only answer that made much sense in this case — or, at least, the answer that had the juiciest implications — was that the couple was in an illicit relationship.
When Antiques Roadshow was informed of Paul’s discovery, they dubbed him a “genius” — and estimated an added 10-20% to the monetary value of the box. Still, Jon thinks that the box’s significance goes beyond money.
He feels that the cracked code adds even more to the box’s incredible story. With a backstory involving mysterious codes, centuries of secrets, and possible illicit lovers, the vintage box spun quite a mystery!
And Paul knew what an exciting backstory could do for an item. Given his interest in antique appraisal, he likely heard the story of the junk-bowl-turned-priceless artifact a New York man bought from a 2007 garage sale.
The piece in question was this beautifully crafted bowl, which they quickly purchased from the yard sale for a measly $3. Much to their surprise, this seemingly ordinary purchase turned out to be the best investment of their lives…
Upon a close inspection of the bowl, you can see there was quite a lot going on with it. Fine details like the lotus patterns carved into the interior were one of many reasons the family placed the bowl on their mantle for all to see.
For six years, the bowl sat on the mantle, relatively untouched, save for the occasional dusting. Eventually, though, the intricacies of the bowl piqued their interest, and the family suspected that they had more than just a $3 cereal bowl on their hands.
They brought their garage sale purchase to various experts, hoping to confirm their suspicions. The couple ended up at Sotheby’s, a broker with a sterling reputation for appraising the finer things in life: art, jewelry, collectibles, and more.
If anyone knew art, it was Sotheby’s. In 2012, the publicly traded corporation managed to auction off Edvard Munch’s most iconic work, The Scream, for almost $120 million. In other words, if the garage shoppers’ bowl was worth something, Sotheby’s would know.
Jennifer S. Altman / The New York Times
When the family brought the bowl to Sotheby’s for appraisal, they were told it was a thousand years old—and it actually originated from China’s Song dynasty. Unbeknownst to them, they’d been living with an ancient Chinese artifact all along!
The crazy revelations didn’t stop there. When the auctioneers at Sotheby’s crunched the numbers, they concluded that the bowl was worth anywhere between $200,000 and $300,000! But that was just an estimate…
Before the family made a dime off their $3 garage sale purchase, however, someone would have to pay for it at auction. But with Sotheby’s slinging all kinds of impressive fine art, would a five-inch bowl really make $200,000? They’d have to wait and see.
Julie Gamble Smith
The auction took place on March 19, 2013. The family anxiously waited for the live bidding to start, and they didn’t realize just how many people were hungrily eyeing their ancient bowl. One of those people happened to be Giuseppe Eskenazi, a man considered to be the world’s foremost dealer of Chinese art.
Just eight years earlier, Giuseppe proved he wasn’t afraid to shell out some serious money for valuable antiques when he purchased a 14th-century jar for $23.5 million! His next target? That New York family’s Song dynasty bowl.
When the bidding started, there were five prospective buyers, including Giuseppe. They went back and forth, trying to outspend one another on the ornate artifact. After a few minutes of furious bidding, the auction was over. The final bid was astronomical…
Giuseppe managed to win the bowl after dropping $2.2 million on it. The family—who purchased the bowl for $3—definitely made their money back! If it’s hard to believe this modest dish could’ve fetched such a high price, there’s one thing you’re not considering…
This bowl was worth far more than any other because of one particular reason. After the auction, CNN’s Richard Roth spoke with both Giuseppe Eskenaz and the Sotheby’s auctioneer, Henry Howard Sneyd, to find out why…
When asked what made the bowl so special, Giuseppe put it simply: “There’s only one other,” he said. “It’s also in perfect condition; considering its past history, it’s a miracle.” No kidding. The bowl even survived a garage sale!
Giuseppe continued explaining what made the bowl so unique. “It’s decorated both on the inside and outside, which is also very, very rare,” he said. Auctioneer Henry echoed his sentiments…
“The moment the box [containing the bowl] lid was opened,” Henry said, “I knew that I was looking at something completely special.” He described the carver’s precise and beautiful work as “a little bit like Mozart.” Talk about high praise!
As a final note, Giuseppe made it clear just how special the bowl was. “I can’t think of another bowl—except for [the one at] the British Museum [pictured]—that is as sophisticated as this one.” Again, this was no cereal bowl.
So how did a bowl so priceless end up as $3 yard sale purchase? That remained a mystery. The bowl, Henry said, “has come out of the blue in terms of being a complete discovery.” But for as much as it sold for, you couldn’t put a price tag on the seller’s reaction…
“I got back to my desk after the auction,” Henry recalled, “and I found an email, which was in capital letters: WOW. And then a new line: WOW. And then a line of exclamation marks.” And with a profit of over $2 million, there couldn’t be a more fitting reaction!
Turns out there’s plenty of old items lying around, just waiting to be noticed for there value! And apparently, it’s a lot easier to find these things than most people think. You might have these undiscovered treasures laying around your own home!
1. When students Skyer Ashworth and Talia Rappa were looking through clothes at a thrift store in Florida, they couldn’t help but notice six NASA spacesuits on the rack. They purchased the official 1980s-era suits for a mere 20 cents each, only to discover later that they were actually worth much more: $5,000 per suit!
2. Zachary Bodish was immediately drawn to this reproduction Picasso poster when he spotted it at a thrift store near Columbus, Ohio, and he purchased it for $14. Not long after, he discovered that it wasn’t a replica at all, but a linocut made by Picasso himself. He eventually sold it to a private buyer for $7,000!
3. Vinyl collector Warren Hill always kept his eyes peeled for rare records selling at New York City street sales, though he never had much luck. That is, until he stumbled upon a Velvet Underground test-pressing that was only intended to be seen by the record label and the distributor. He later sold it on eBay for a stunning $25,000!
4. Jennifer Thompson purchased the Nintendo game Stadium Events from a North Carolina thrift store for just $8. Little did she know that it was highly coveted by collectors. She couldn’t believe it when someone purchased it from her for $25,000!
5. A German student returned home with a $215 foldable couch she’d picked up at a flea market, only to have a rare painting fall from its crease. Created between 1605 and 1620 by an unknown artist, it depicted Italian master Carlo Saraceni. Despite the nameless artist, it eventually auctioned for $27,630!
6. A woman shopping at a thrift store in Somerset, England, was happy to pay $3 for this metal bowl. When she brought it to have appraised, the experts instantly knew it was a Chinese tripod censer that dated to the 18th century Qianlong period. That could certainly help explain why it eventually fetched $30,000 at auction!
7. When Zach Norris went to a Phoenix thrift store in search of a cheap golf trolley, he got much more than he bargained for. He forked over $5.99 for a neat-looking watch by Jaeger-LeCoultre. It wound up being worth a whopping $35,000!
8. A couple from Knoxville, Tennessee, Sean and Rikki McEvoy, randomly purchased a black sports sweater from a thrift store. They had no idea it had once belonged to famed football coach Vince Lombardi. They paid just 58 cents for the item, though it was worth $43,000!
9. When an Australian man purchased this pretty item for $3 from a shop in Sydney, he had no idea it was actually an incredibly rare Chinese libation cup made of rhino horn. He later earned a cool $60,000 when the cup was auctioned by Sotheby’s.
10. In 1994, an avid golfer walked into a Toronto thrift store and found an eye-catching green jacket selling for just $5. The jacket turned out to be an authentic jacket from a 1950s Augusta National! Even without the golfer’s name stitched onto it, a memorabilia company purchased it for the high price of $139,349.
11. One British man spotted this watch at a parking lot sale and paid $35 for it. He was elated when he found out that it was the exact same watch Sean Connery wore when he starred as James Bond in the 1965 film Thunderball. Even better: he sold it for a staggering $145,000!
12. When this painting was donated to the Columbia-Williamette Goodwill, the staff priced it to sell for $10. It wasn’t long before someone recognized it as a watercolor by American artist Frank Weston Benson. It later sold for an astonishing $165,002!
13. A person was shopping at a flea market in Brooklyn when they stumbled upon a $15 necklace designed by American sculptor Alexander Calder. Though Calder wasn’t known for his jewelry, they couldn’t turn down such a deal. It’s a good thing they didn’t, because it turned out to be worth $267,750!
14. London man John Richard paid only $30 for this Andy Warhol print bag—featuring the likeness of Elvis Presley—at a local thrift store. After it was appraised, he learned that only 10 were ever made by designer Philip Treacy, which explains why it is rumored to be worth a grand total of $480,000!
15. When this item was donated to a charity shop in England, staff members quickly realized it might be worth something. As it turned out, it was a bamboo pot created between 1662 and 1672 by Gu Jue, a famed Chinese artist. Even though it needed to be restored, it sold for a whopping $500,000!
16. Claire Wiegan-Beckmann purchased a card table from a garage sale for $25 in the 1960s. Years later, she decided she would have it appraised on the TV program Antiques Roadshow. That’s when she discovered it was from the 1700s and worth $541,500!
17. In the 1980s, a ring caught a shopper’s eye at a parking lot sale at a London hospital. He purchased it for $14, and after wearing it for five years, he decided to have it officially appraised. That’s when he learned it was a 26.27 carat diamond! He eventually sold it for a staggering $915,000.
18. An Indiana man paid $30 for this painting hoping to use it to cover a hole in his wall. One day, while playing a board game based on art auctions, he noticed that one of the cards featured a similar painting. That’s when he discovered it was the “Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth” by Martin Johnson Heade… and it was worth $1.2 million!
19. In 1989, a man purchased a painting for $4 because he liked the frame. He removed the painting to put something else inside and discovered an original print of the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence. It was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1991 for $2,420,000!
Sothebys / Wikimedia commons