How $50 became $1,600 in Minutes

One man’s junk becomes another woman’s treasure – and this one actually paid off.The Mystery of the Goodwill TapestryHow I Turned $50 into $1,600 in 6.5 Minutes

By Beth Dees

I confess. I like to go to Goodwill and shop, not just drop off donated items. You never know when you might spot something unusual there . . . like the huge, dark green velvet tapestry I saw hanging in the window when I walked in the door of the Apalachee Parkway store six months ago.

I fell in love with the awesome piece. It had a large gold crown emblazoned in the center along with Roman numerals, Italian words and roses, pomegranates and Medusa heads replete with snakes hand-stitched in the wide border. I was sure I had seen something like it in a movie: The king and queen were carrying on a conversation in bed and just such a tapestry hung on the wall behind them. Then again, maybe I had seen something like it in a museum. It looked not only beautiful, but important.

I had to have it and attempted to morph into two people – one to grab a salesclerk and the other to grab onto my object of desire, knowing possession is nine-tenths of the law. Within minutes, I was standing by the tapestry with the manager.

“We just finished hanging that a few minutes ago,” he said, looking at the tapestry with apparent distaste. “It’s priced at $60.”

Thinking it was going to cost at least several hundred dollars, I stuttered wordlessly.

“OK, I can drop it to $50,” he said, looking somewhat worried that I wasn’t going to buy it and he was going to be stuck with a monstrosity for months – or maybe years.

I was so excited, “Sold!” was all I could get out.

About then, another woman walked in the door, saw the tapestry and hurried over. I practically bared my teeth at her, but managed to politely inform her that I now owned it. She smiled an envious smile and walked off.

Then a problem presented itself: I didn’t live in a castle. And that’s what one needed for proper display of this prize. I simply couldn’t bear the thought of it becoming closet fodder. Oh well, I’d figure something out, I thought to myself as I folded the heavy cloth and headed home. It fit my queen-sized bed perfectly, but smelled musty. In addition, I grew worried the cat might throw up on it or the dog would jump on it and put a paw through what I discovered was very fragile fabric. It seemed to be quite old.

I Googled the Roman numerals and words and quickly became bamboozled by the list of related Web sites in Italian. Though I have been to Florence, sadly, the extent of my repertoire of words from that beautiful language consists of “ciao” and “grazie.” 

I showed my mother my “find,” as I called it. Having practiced her skill many years and traveled the United States and to Canada taking classes in fine stitchery, she confirmed that it must have taken someone or a group many hours to hand-stitch the fine silk threads into the delicate designs. When I said I wasn’t sure what to do with it, she offered me twice what I paid for it. Normally I love my mother and would give her anything, but suddenly I felt selfish and suspicious.

“No,” I said, in what sounded like a 10-year-old’s voice. She just sighed, rolled her eyes and mumbled something about ungrateful children.

A month or so ago, I was pondering my problem over a café latte at a favorite haunt – Bada Bean, a neat coffee shop in the Parkway Square Plaza, which has free wireless hook-up, a large-screen TV, cool pictures of a young Frank Sinatra on the wall, and “in” magazines such as Tallahassee Magazine (of course), Condé Nast Traveler, Cigar Aficionado and Yachting.

Suddenly, through the front window, I spied the sign on the window of Affiliated Auctions and Realty at the other end of the plaza. Just for fun, I walked over and soon found myself talking to Morena, a lovely Italian woman. She turned out to be a much better Googler than I, because within minutes of typing in “Gerace Ventimiglia,” she found enough information to indicate that the tapestry might be from a noble Italian family.

I exulted in the information. After I brought the tapestry to the shop and she looked it over, she asked if I would be interested in putting it in one of their auctions. She explained that the commission they received went toward detailed research on the item; putting it on eBay and taking sealed bids; sending news releases to Sotheby’s, museums and fine art dealers; and, of course, holding the live auction, in which bidders could participate in person, by sealed bid, by phone or online.

After telling my mother no, how could I tell Morena yes? How could I part with my find, my treasure, my mysterious prize? Up until now, all I knew of auctions was the importance of sitting on one’s hands while attending one.

It had nothing to do with money. OK, with a starting bid of $1,000, I admit the dough did matter a little. But I took into account not owning a castle and my husband’s take on the tapestry (which was similar to that of the manager at Goodwill). Also, I believe in sharing. What’s the point in keeping something of historical significance and artistic beauty as closet clutter? I signed the contract to sell it.

Finally, the evening came. It was like going to church. The chairs were set up in rows with a center aisle, and at the front was the auctioneer, John Whitworth, in a pulpit. He even reminded me of preachers from my Southern Baptist days, going into his sing-song cadence for hours until each of the hundreds of items sold. At one point a silver plate with coins was passed around, but you weren’t supposed to make an offering – just look and decide if you wanted to buy the whole bunch.

I know now why some people prefer to shop at the mall. Auctions take patience, focus and fast reflexes. I had registered to be a bidder, but the beautiful antique, copper-covered blanket chest I liked was sold before I even unfolded my hands in my lap. And for a mere $50. Surely it was worth hundreds. The attendees mostly wore jeans and T-shirts, a few had on ball caps, but everyone there had hundreds of dollars or more to bid on some gold coin, antique gun or pair of Chinese foo foo dogs.

At last, my tapestry was held up. I tensed excitedly. When it started low at $200, my belly flopped, but the prices rose and the bidding war was on.

“Twelve hundred to bid, thirteen to buy, now give me thirteen and a half,” Whitworth chanted. The price climbed to $1,600. He paused. “Last call . . . sold.”

Someone from New York bought the royal tapestry. I hoped it was going to a good home or castle.

On the way home, I decided I would drop in on future auctions. After all, you never know when you might spot something unusual there.

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