By John Griswold
You always read about it:
the plumber with the twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches.
—“Cinderella,” Anne Sexton
Who does not have the feeling, now and then, that the pot of gold is out there, sitting around, waiting for harvest?
A woman in England discovered hers recently. Thirty years ago she had bought a costume-jewelry ring at a garage sale for the equivalent of 13 bucks and wore it around all this time because she liked it. Turns out it was a 19th-century cut diamond of more than 26 carats. Sotheby’s sold it for her, in 2017, for $850,000.
There was the guy desperate to sell some egg-shaped thing he had bought, to scrap-metal dealers. It turned out to be Tsar Alexander III’s Easter gift to his wife, a Fabergé egg that sold in 2015 for $33 million.
The pot of gold is an emotional hope. Shelley Levine, in Glengarry Glen Ross, explains that when he seduces a client, “I tell them, ‘This is now. This is that thing that you’ve been dreaming of, you’re going to find that suitcase on the train, the guy comes in the door, the bag that’s full of money. This is it, Harriett …’”
It is a particular sort of hope, the pot of gold, related but not identical to the winning lottery ticket, the reading of the will, or a social connection that leads unexpectedly to boon.
My friend Crazy Larry tried to define it. “See, a time machine would let you win the lottery, or at Jeopardy, or to use a sports almanac to bet and get rich,” he said. “But the woman’s diamond ring isn’t like that. A time machine wouldn’t have helped, and without the luck of some jeweler seeing it on her finger, it could have ended up in a grave or the landfill. It isn’t like inheriting something either. That’s a fait accompli.”
He suggested a magic app instead—maybe it would be called Magic App®, and we would be the only consumers to have it—that would reveal objects of high value that were easily retrieved and sold without first having to create demand for them.
“That’s easy,” he said. “Use the app to find some guy with a priceless copper penny in his pocket at the Hardee’s, and take it from him. He doesn’t know it’s worth a million. What’s he gonna do, complain we took his penny? Or hit up all those hillbillies with gold on strings in their ponds, waiting for the apocalypse. There’s trillions of dollars hidden on people’s properties through the south.”
“I doubt that,” I said.
“You’re wrong,” he said coldly.
I had to insist the app not include things that were illegal; that is, retrieving them would not require trespassing, B&E, thumping, or trading gunfire with survivalists.
He wanted to know if knocking on somebody’s door would be ok, and telling them he would split the proceeds of what he was about to tell them. He asked if he could find a Roman helmet in the Thames and give the British government their due.
“Yes,” I said, “but….”
“Sunken pirate treasure!”
“Too much work,” I said. “Ever see the coral, sand, and silt on a wreck? It takes years to recover stuff underwater, and it’s dangerous. Mel Fisher got one of his sons killed that way on the Atocha. And no Oak Island, either. The app only shows things that would require no more than, say, a week of travel, and the expense of only hotel rooms, food, and gas to get there.”
“You have to allow for a small investment,” Larry said. “Some of it’s going to be in garage sales, antique shops, used bookstores. Spend 30 bucks on a coffee-table book, and out falls an original copy of the Declaration. A stock certificate for Coke, misidentified, in an antique store. Pollocks, Lichtensteins, Rothkos, Modiglianis, bring 170 mil, 200 mil—surely there’s one at some garage sale. Oh: what about Bible scrolls in a desert cave? The Nazi train full of stolen art in a mountain? You’ve got undiscovered pyramids full of gold in the Andes, right? Meteorites worth a fortune? Dinosaur bones?” He was warming to it.
“A diamond the size of a cantaloupe. Looks like all the other rocks in a highway cut,” I said. “Billy the Kid’s saddlebags.”
“Hemingway’s lost suitcase,” we said at the same time.
Larry is a collector of many types of things, and he pointed out that every collecting field has its grail. He is aware, not without reason, that valuables might be hidden anywhere, even in plain sight. A decade ago he really wanted to knock holes in the plaster of my historic house, just to have a look, and eyed the geometry of his own walls to make sure they were not hiding a secret room. (My house had a secret room.) But we were both surprised at how few categories of things Magic App® would work on: Precious stones and metals; certain historical items or objects of art; financial papers written on the ground floor of the businesses. It would be easier just to have Magic Capital® to buy out the poor people and throw up a PetSmart.
Without app or capital, we are like most everyone else. We bought a truckload of books from a private library, every one of which was worthless, and they moldered in his basement for years.
Once, Crazy Larry took something to an Antiques Roadshow-type event. Standing in a long line, he was approached by a British expert on valuation. The man glanced at Larry’s piece and shouted over the crowd noise, “Not a winnah!”
John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life.