The $280,000 Question

I had wrapped it in bubble wrap and inserted it into a padded envelope, and I carried the etching onto the plane, cradling it as if it were a baby. I was aware of it next to me the entire flight to New York, alert to anyone who might attempt to snatch or harm it. It was, I was certain, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We had bought the etching for $25 over 25 years ago, an early 16th Century Albrecht Durer entitled Melencolia. We had fallen in love with its exquisite lines, its somber subject matter, its majestic composition. It was our first real art purchase, and we figured we had a bargain – worth $50, maybe even $100!

So we hung it, admired it, and then let it slip into our visual subconscious for the next 25 years as it went from a singular place of honor in our married-student apartment to being just one of a grouping in our grown-up house.

It attracted little notice from visitors, until the day my husband’s associate passed it, did a double take, then stood riveted in front of it. This is a Durer? he said, and we nodded, noticing it anew. I just saw a picture of this in a book, he said. I think it had a price on it. I think it was pretty high. A price? we said. Pretty high?  Uh, how high exactly?  I don’t remember, he said. I’ll bring you the book.

In the book was our etching. Worth $280,000. Should we sell it? I asked my husband. Or keep it?  After all, we love it. It was our very first art purchase.


But before we could sell it, we had to authenticate it. We needed an expert who could tell us exactly what it was worth. Go to Christie’s, the respected art auction house in New York, we were told.

So we made an appointment. I wrapped up the etching like a fragile egg, guarded it on the plane and in the cab, and we went to Christie’s.

You enter Christie’s as if it were a cathedral. You wait in the reception area on plush little chairs, and you speak in whispers. A rigidly coiffed woman across the room sits poised, waiting, twisting a large emerald ring around one arthritic finger as if she were screwing it on. The air is heavy with the weight of old money.

Off in the middle distance is a glass case displaying something silver. I squint, trying to see what warrants such attention: halogen lights pinpoint a glittering object resting on a velvet-covered pedestal. I wonder, of all the treasure in this hallowed place, what favored bauble has been selected to exemplify Christie’s high standards?  Some precious antique, no doubt, with a long, distinguished history, worthy of starring in its own stage-lit case.

We are motioned to enter, and I clutch the Durer to my breast as we are seated in the inner office of the Expert Lady. She is New York chic. She sits behind her elegant desk, wearing her designer suit, and her perfectly outlined lips smile a professional smile as I unwrap the etching. She studies it for several minutes. Her smile shrinks to a pucker, and her little brushed eyebrows climb like twin caterpillars to the top of her face.

I’d like someone else to have a look, she says, and we nod, yes yes, exchanging a quick sideways glance as she murmurs into an intercom. In a moment, the Second Expert Lady enters, gliding over the carpet in her Bruno Magli pumps. The two confer briefly. I try to look casually about the room, try not to catch my husband’s eye, try not to shout:  Well?  Well? What do you think? at the two women huddled over the Durer.

And the second Expert Lady asks, do you mind if I take this upstairs?  I’d like to examine it a little more closely. Do you mind if I take it out of the frame?

Feel free? We both blurt. Sure?  Take it out!  Take it apart!  Take your time!  And off she glides with our Durer, up to the dissection room.

It is hard to make idle conversation with the First Expert Lady as we wait. It is hard to talk about New York weather versus Miami weather, and favorite restaurants, and what shows have you seen, when your heart is leaping like a Slinky toy from your throat to your navel. Chitchat is almost impossible when your mind is ca-chunking like a cash register and you’re trying to decide whether you’ll buy that house on the water before or after you take that trip on the Orient Express. Just when I am calculating how much time I have left that day to begin the shopping trip of my life, the door opens, and my mental checkbook closes.

The Second Expert Lady is not smiling. For a moment, she says with the practiced regret of an undertaker, I thought we had an original. But there’s just one tiny detail that gave it away. Tiny detail!  Teeny tiny detail!  A teeny-tiny, teeny-weeny $280,000 detail!

See, she continues, half regrettably, half triumphant at her expertise at discovering tiny details. She is pointing at the midsection of the scowling angel in the etching. See how this key is positioned on the bundle of keys at her waist?  See how this key differs from the way that key falls? she says, pointing to the key in an authenticated copy in a book. I squint at both keys. Huh?  To me, one key looks exactly like the other; every line of our etching follows exactly every line of the book’s etching. It’s so exact it could be a Xerox, if they had Xeroxes back then. But, no, they didn’t have Xeroxes. They had students. And the students in those days copied exactly, line for line, works of the masters of their day. Like Albrecht Durer. These students were paying homage to the great works, publishing them for a larger audience, they were not forgers. So they would always intentionally alter one teeny-tiny detail, like the way a key falls, to indicate that this was a legitimate copy, not a forgery.

Lucky us. Our copy was made by a very talented student. It’s worth, the Expert Lady says, maybe $1,500 – lots more than the 25 bucks we paid for it, but not $280,000 more. We decide to keep it.

Having expressed her regrets, the Second Expert Lady looks right by us now. I’m off to lunch, she says to the First, and in a grand sweep of leopard coat, she disappears out the door. We follow meekly, back into the hushed waiting area, our dreams as dead as her coat.

Before we leave Christie’s, I’m compelled to take a detour. I have to see what precious silver wonder is displayed in the glass showcase that gleams off in the distance. I have to see what prize acquisition deserves this place of honor. I approach it to pay proper homage.

And there, perched upon the purple velvet, glowing in the light, is a pair of Imelda Marcos’ silver platform shoes.

Miami Herald, Tropic Magazine