story by Deborah Boehm
photos by Charles Emmett Freeman
You’ve probably heard the tales of treasures trouvées, bought for a song in a state of disrepair and later found to be worth a fortune. Those stories might sound like urban legends, but they’re absolutely true: the grimy glass “flowerpot” (actually a vintage Lalique vase), purchased for a pittance at a roadside sale in England and later auctioned at Christie’s for $47,000; the pair of floral still-life paintings by the 19th-century artist Martin Johnson Heade, acquired at an Arizona estate sale for $88, that subsequently fetched just over a million dollars at Christie’s; the 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence hidden behind a funky old picture that a thrift-shop patron had bought for $4 because he liked the frame. (That rare document eventually sold for $2.42 million at Sotheby’s.)
Now there’s a dramatic diamond-in-the-rough saga to add to the litany of mind-boggling bargains: the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ serendipitous acquisition, orchestrated by HAA Director Stephen Little, of the dusty, disorganized cache of East Asian art known as the Richard Lane Collection. Little’s spur-of-the moment decision to buy the Lane collection may have seemed like a gamble at the time, but now that it has been valued at upward of $30 million—more than a thousand times what the Academy paid for it—that leap of faith appears in retrospect to have been pure, visionary, gut-instinct genius.