Goodwill Hunting

Karen Mallett with her Goodwill “find,” a Alexander Calder print she purchased for $12.34 and is currently valued at $9,000.

CHICAGO — Have you ever wandered into a Goodwill store, browsed through the clothing (only slightly soiled), moved onto the box with the framed velvet pictures of Elvis, and picked out a print that cost you twelve dollars but turned out to be worth nine thousand? Me neither. But this is exactly what happened to Karen Mallett in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a few months ago — at least the ‘paying a few bucks for a work of art’ part.

As reported by ABC News and other media outlets, Karen Mallett picked out a print showing a geometric version of a monkey’s face, drawn in trippy concentric black lines that converge on a red nose in the center. She knows enough about art that when she spotted the signature ‘Calder’ in the bottom corner she decided it was worth shelling out the $12.99 asking price — which was reduced to $12.34 because of her Goodwill discount card. After a little internet research at home and an expert’s appraisal, she discovered that she was in possession of “Red Nose,” a 1969 lithograph by the great sculptor Alexander Calder, with a replacement value of $9,000.

Apparently this sort of thing happens a lot at Goodwill stores, who seem by their public statements to be weary of the press coverage, with its ‘you should have known better’ tone. They point out with some justification that their staff do their best with what is given to them, but they are not trained art experts. ABC News reported that this latest “find” is at least the fourth time in six months that valuable art has turned up at Goodwill:

Last month, a Salvador Dali sketch found at a Goodwill shop in Tacoma, Washington, sold for $21,000. Last summer, a North Carolina woman pocketed more than $27,000 for a painting she bought for $9.99 at Goodwill. And last spring, a dusty jug donated in Buffalo, NY, was discovered to be a thousands-of-years-old American Indian artifact — it was returned to its tribe instead of being offered for sale.

And occasionally staff do spot some good stuff, such as a painting by Frank Weston Benson that was donated to a Portland Goodwill in 2006, and which went on to be sold on the Goodwill auction site for more than $165,000.

The slightly gleeful tone of all this coverage (mine included) risks overlooking one important aspect of this, which is that the sole reason for Goodwill’s existence is not to fulfill our fantasies of getting something for nothing, of becoming winners in the Powerball lottery of flea market art. Goodwill sells used stuff on the cheap so that it can spend the money — lots of it — on vital services to those who need it, as well as things like job training and employment programs. And in the continued efforts to recover from Hurricane Sandy, 90 Goodwill stores in the New York and northern New Jersey area distributed much needed clothing as the cold weather set in.

Just one more thing on Ms. Mallett’s find, however. The eagle-eyed Calder “expert” has decided to keep her print, which just cries out for the headline: Mallett Avoids Auctioneer’s Hammer.

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