Enthusiasts of a flea market or carboot sale are always on the hunt for a steal, but one man got far more than he bargained for in 1991 after he bought an “ugly” painting. At just $4, a collector picked up the painting purely because he liked the picture frame, despite thinking the painting was “dismal”, but discovered an immaculate original copy of the Declaration of Independence within the frame once he dismantled it.
This particular copy was one of just 25 from the original batch of Declarations printed in 1776, making it almost priceless – “almost” being the operative word here. Following his incredible discovery, the man wasted no time in sending the copy to auction in 1991, where it was expected to fetch a tidy $800,000 – $1 million (a maximum of around $2.2 million in today’s money). Instead, the copy swept the house and fetched $2.2 million from the highest bidder (almost $5 million today).
Describing it as an “unspeakably fresh copy”, David Redden, who was tasked with selling it at auction, was fascinated by the item. "The fact that it has been in the backing of the frame preserved it," he explained in a preserved NYT article from 1991.
Redden explained how the bargain hunter discarded the painting and was disappointed to find that the frame was poorly made as well, so dismantled it shortly after. Just behind the painting, he found the declaration, though he didn’t think much of that either.
"But he kept the declaration, which he had found behind the painting," Mr. Redden said. "It was folded up, about the size of a business envelope. He thought it might be an early 19th-century printing and worth keeping as a curiosity."
The man’s friend then became excited at the sight of the copy, urging him to talk to an expert. They called Sotheby's and the rest is history.
It went to auction again in 2000, where it had gained even more value and sold again for $7.4 million. Sotheby’s explained that it had even more value because it is one of just seven copies that are unbacked, and it required almost no restoration. It is unclear exactly why it was behind the painting, but it was folded while the ink was still wet, so it was likely placed into the envelope immediately after printing.
The nature of it being hidden from the elements and protected within the painting made it truly a special find, though that doesn't mean you should immediatley go out and purchase awful paintings indiscriminately.