Backstory Babs and the thousand-to-one shot

I was but a mere slip of a lad when I saw the word “serendipity,” and it was love at first sight.

First, the word itself was so odd, so seemingly-unrelated to any other word I knew, kinda rolled off the tongue magically. And its origin, itself, was almost magical. It was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole in a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip, Serendip being an old name for Sri Lanka, which is a new name for Ceylon.

Second, its concept was something I’d never thought of: The occurrence of something by happy circumstance. The idea that instead of you pursuing something, you wait until it happens to you. To say at that age I was a creature of impulse and immediate gratification is a world-class understatement.

And third, it seemed like a brilliant way to approach life. I was immediately smitten with that concept — even though I couldn’t actually model it very much.

I still love the idea of living serendipitously, even though I’m still not very good at it.

But even though I’m a novice at serendipity, my pal Backstory Babs is a master of it. And nothing illustrates that better than the painting in her kitchen.

On the trail …

Babs is a great lover of arts and crafts and a sensible collector of both. Then again, she HAS to be sensible because she’s always lived on a tight budget. And thus her and serendipity: If she wants a certain piece, say, some kind of pottery, she doesn’t run out and then buy something in a retail store. Instead, she waits until she runs across exactly what she wants in a thrift shop. The girl is a bargain hunter’s bargain hunter, par excellence.

So the story of the painting in her kitchen started with no painting in her kitchen. But she knew she wanted one there, and she knew exactly what size it’d be and where it’d go. She also knew it had to have gold — bright, bright gold — in it. Beyond those things, she knew nothing about the painting, except that eventually she’d find it.

Months go by, then a year, then two…and six years later she’s in a Salvation Army store when she sees a flash out the corner of her eye. And not just any flash, but a bright gold flash.

She goes over to investigate and there on the floor in a corner is a painting. The gold is not from the painting, but from the frame. And what a frame it is. It’s big, ornate, very solid — much like the ones you see on paintings in museums.

She looks at it more closely, and the more she checks it out, the more she’s sure the gold on the frame is real gold leaf, not paint. The painting itself is a landscape, in oils. Though she’s not enamored with the painting, it’s nice enough for her kitchen, especially with that frame. She hands over the 20 bucks they want for it and takes her score home.

Once she mounts it on the wall, she realizes it’s perfect. The frame is of course boffo, and the painting itself, now that it’s in a good light, is lovely. All in all, it was well worth the wait.


When she first got the painting, she saw it was signed and had a date on it, but didn’t think anything of it. But a few weeks later, out of curiosity, she did. The artist’s name meant nothing to her, but the date — 1898 — caught her attention. If nothing, else the painting was 100 years old. And then she did what we’d all do in that situation — she punched the artist’s name in Google. And when she did, she got a serious surprise. Maybe she never heard of him, but a whole lot of other people did.

Though hardly in the same class as Andrew Wyeth or Thomas Hart Benton, that guy (whose name I can never remember) was well known among art cognoscenti. There were a bunch of Google entries about him, his career, his techniques and so on. All of which got Barb thinking what all of us would be thinking in the same situation: Was this painting actually worth anything (other than 20 bucks)?

There’s only one way to find out a painting’s value and that’s having it assessed by a qualified person. All Babs had to do was two things. One was find a qualified assessor. The other was to have the moolah to pay them for the assessment. It’s not a simple, or inexpensive, thing. She found several assessors, but there was no way she could afford any of them. So while the painting stayed on the wall, her plans for assessing its value stayed on the back burner.

And then – talk about serendipity — an assessor magically appeared. OK, so it wasn’t magic, but it might as well been.

What happened was she told a friend of hers about the painting and her wanting to have it assessed but being unable to do so, and her friend’s eye’s lit up. It just happened her friend’s cousin was married to a guy whose sister-in-law was an art assessor. Holy moly!

The friend asked the cousin if she could ask her husband’s sis-in-law if she’d give Babs a discount on an assessment – and a huge discount at that.

The word came back, and it was a resounding yes.

And why wouldn’t it be? This could be an art assessor’s Dream Come True. It’s the stuff we read about; it’s what drives Antique Roadshow and all those programs: Finding an original Shakespeare manuscript, or Wild Bill Hickock’s pistols, or something of that ilk, in a junk shop.

Value vs. Worth

Babs called me with the news.

“So what’d she say it was worth?” I said.

“She didn’t,” she said. “Not yet. She never heard of the guy either, so she has to study up on it.”

“Oh,” I said. “She have an idea when she’ll know enough?”

“Well, since she’s really doing this as a favor, it’s a part-time thing,” she said. “But she said she should be able to do it in six months or so.”

Six months? What was wrong with that woman? Was she completely inconsiderate? Didn’t she realize six months of waiting might damn well kill me?

As it turned out, she did a bang-up job and three months later I got a call from Babs, telling me the assessment had been done.

“All right,” I said, unable to keep my skepticism to myself, “should I be sitting down when I hear this?”

“Might be a good idea,” she said.

“You’re kidding?” I said.

“Not at all,” she said.

“So what’s the story,” I asked.

“Well, this painting was done when the artist was at his peak.”

“So there are a whole lot of them?”

“No,” she said. “That’s the weird part. His best work was done then, but he didn’t produce much of it. So it’s in demand, because there’s really not a lot of it around.”

“And by ‘in demand,’ you means collectors are willing to pay big bucks for it?”

“Oh, not big bucks like for a Picasso or Van Gogh,” she said lightly.

“All right,” I said. “How much did the assessor say it’s worth?”

“She couldn’t say exactly,” she said. “But based on how much his stuff sells for and the condition of this one and all, she said twenty thousand would be a reasonable minimum.”

“Twenty thousand what?” I all but screamed.

“Dollars,” she said. “What else, balloons?”

I tried to process the thought of my pal Backstory Babs having in her kitchen a $20,000 painting she got in the Salvation Army for two sawbucks. I couldn’t.

“You still there?” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “But not all there.”

She laughed.

“So,” I said, “Are you going to sell it?”

“Of course not,” she said.

“You’re not?”

“Why would I?” she said.

“Uh, maybe for the money?”

“And if I did that, then what?” she said.

“Then,” I said, “you’d have a whole buttload of money you never had before.”

“Sure,” she said. “But there’s something I wouldn’t have.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The perfect picture for my kitchen,” she said. “And if you think I’m gonna wait six years to find another one, you’re even crazier than I think you are.”

Luckily, as crazy as I may be, I’m not that crazy.