Most important discoveries were made by dedicated people of singular mind and purpose, tirelessly exhausting themselves and their resources to achieve a clearly defined goal. Then there are others made by people with vague agendas who, by luck or circumstance, trip over major finds like a fat kid at a roller rink. This article is about that second type.
If you shop on eBay, you know it as a mystery emporium of untold wonders. If you sell stuff there, you know it as the best place to snicker "suckers" under your breath while duping idiots. One of these two perspectives has to give, and usually it's the hopes and dreams of the guy who just bought what he thought was an ancient Egyptian artifact and that was in fact a piece of spearmint gum that had been stuck to the bottom of a middle school desk for the past five years.
"It's either a bug trapped in amber or a scab covered with resin."
But occasionally the tables are turned, and it's the purchaser using his advanced weirdness to screw over the seller. It turns out that all you need is a strange enough hobby and an advanced understanding of science. For instance, in 2008 an entomologist in London named Dr. Richard Harrington bought an amber sample from Lithuania for about $30 dollars. He was interested in seeing what was inside because he'd worked with a "team of people involved in monitoring and forecasting aphids," while the seller was presumably interested in buying lunch because some nerdy dipshit collects dirty, dried tree sap.
"Jurassic Park was such a blessing to my industry."
When the amber arrived, Harrington cracked it open to find an unknown species of aphid 40 to 50 million years old, at which point his pleated slacks erupted with a boner the size of Sir Richard Attenborough's cane in Jurassic Park. Grateful to the auction website for his scientific discovery, he tried to name the aphid Mindarus ebayi after eBay. Fortunately, because of his fellow scientists' outrage at the suggestion, he just named it Mindarus harringtoni after himself.
"Look, man, you can name your kids whatever you want, but you show this insect some fucking respect."
Charlie Chaplin was one of the first really big movie stars, sort of like an early 20th century version of what Adam Sandler was 10 years ago. Chaplin has influenced pretty much every physical comedian of the past hundred years, so the fact that one of his films could even be referred to as "unknown" is staggering, as is the prospect of actually finding such an item.
"No, it's cool. Hitler hasn't been invented yet."
Flash forward to 2009, and the eBay tables were being flipped once again. That year, British antiques collector Morace Park was searching for antiques on eBay when he came across an old film canister that looked pretty cool. He managed to win the auction, getting it for a little over three British pounds ($5 in real, actual money). Park was only bidding on a canister that he thought looked interesting and fun as a collectible. When he got the canister, he was surprised to find that there was still film inside of it. Looking through the frames, he was able to make out an actor of some distinction -- the aforementioned Charlie Chaplin.
After a bit of researching and annoying film historians with calls, he found out that the film was a previously undiscovered propaganda film from 1916 called "Zepped." It was apparently made for the war effort to help alleviate British fears of zeppelin attacks from Germany, which were a major threat at the time.
After a baffling sequence where Kaiser Wilhelm II walks out of a sausage for no apparent reason, Chaplin defeats a zeppelin by punching it in the face with silent comedy, proving once and for all that zeppelins are nothing to be afraid of. Chaplin famously satirized Hitler in the late stages of his career, so "Zepped" can be seen as the first act in Chaplin's career-long quest to piss off Germany at it's absolute scariest.
Bonhams Entertainment Department
Take that, Kaiser Dickhelm.
After confirming the film's authenticity, Park traveled the world to find out more about its production and has since made plans to put it out on DVD. His five-dollar investment has subsequently been valued as high as $160,000. The value is still being debated: Some film historians believe that "Zepped" was spliced together without Chaplin's knowledge, while others have suggested that, even so, the animated sequences feature techniques that weren't supposed to exist until 10 years after the film was made. So either way, it's rewriting film history, and probably more significant than the can that would look cool if you put puffy paint and sparkles on it that Park thought he was buying.
Although some sparkles really would liven this cultural treasure up.
So there you have it, eBay shoppers. You should totally go ahead and buy that tin of Lion King trading cards. Herve Villechaize's foot may be inside or something.
Before there was eBay, there were thrift stores, where second- and third-hand items are sold to people who are either too poor or too hip to shop anywhere else.
You can put a price tag on hipster cred as long as the price is handwritten in pen by a volunteer.
It's also where naively hopeful fans of Antiques Roadshow used to go to look for hidden gems and instead found copies of The Neverending Story 2 on VHS and games of Connect Four with half the pieces missing. But retired truck driver Teri Horton was only looking for decorations for her apartment when she entered the San Bernadino thrift store that would change her life. After flipping through endless unwanted Thomas Kincaid prints, she came across a weird, trippy painting.
Peter Paul Biro
We're pretty sure it's a duck.
While she didn't like it, she decided to pay the $5 asking price and give it to her friend with the weird taste who always liked this sort of bullshit. But when Horton presented it, the friend told her she didn't want it, and Horton was forced to store the painting in her basement. A few years later, as she was trying to sell it during a garage sale, a passing art teacher walked by and told her that it looked like a Jackson Pollock, to which Horton politely responded, "Who the fuck is Jackson Pollock?"
Lloyd Shin Gallery
"I the fuck am Jackson Pollock."
The art teacher explained that Pollock was a famous drip painter in the 1950s and that his works were worth millions. Seeing that she was no longer useful to the foul-mouthed old lady, the art teacher politely excused herself without trying to buy the painting, presumably to go play deus ex machina in some other lovable rapscallion's tale of triumph. Horton, meanwhile, set out to have the work verified.
The art world couldn't decide whether it was a real Pollock, but Horton became deeply convinced of the work's authenticity after doing research into how rich that would make her. In the documentary about Horton's journey, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art literally looks down his nose at the painting and quickly declares it a fake. Deciding he hadn't yet cemented himself as the know-it-all villain of this tale of triumph, he clarified that, "She knows nothing. I'm an expert. She's not."
"Look at how fancy this building is!"
Horton eventually used science to prove that art experts are full of shit by matching a fingerprint on the painting to Pollock. Still living on Social Security checks out of a trailer park, Horton was offered $9 million by a Saudi Arabian buyer, scoring a victory for underdogs with moxie. Deciding she would rather star in a cautionary tale about the thin line between determined and crazy, Horton turned down the offer, deciding to hold out instead for the more sensible and realistic figure of $50 million.
Because $9 million won't buy fuck all.
The Velvet Underground invented being ahead of your time decades before it was cool. While their albums weren't hugely popular in the 1960s and '70s, people eventually noticed that with each passing year, good music was starting to sound more and more like the Velvet Underground, until eventually the world caught up with them and critics and fans declared them one of the most important rock bands of all time. This isn't all that surprising, since they were fronted by Lou Reed and managed by Andy Warhol, two guys who had already spent most of their lives inventing what you think of as cool today.
They wore flannel back before it was uncool and then cool again.
In 2002, an aspiring cool person named Warren Hill was looking through junk at a sidewalk sale in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City when he found an old acetate record. Acetates are records quickly produced for demo or test purposes and are highly fragile, and they're prized collectibles in certain circles. After weighing the pros and cons of the investment with his long-term financial adviser, Hill threw down 75 cents and took the disc home in a cardboard sleeve. Upon closer inspection, he noticed "The Velvet Underground" written on it.
As the roadie and merch guy for Montreal band the Sunset Rubdowns, Hill knew a thing or two about bands with names that sound vaguely like sexual maneuvers. After speaking with a record label owner in, where else, Portland, Oregon, Hill figured out that he'd just purchased the original demo of the first album the Velvet Underground ever recorded. For less than a dollar.
One year before their first album in 1967, the band made an acetate record demo of what they wanted to do and sent it to Columbia Records, who promptly rejected it. The band was eventually given a second chance, presumably by a record producer from the future, and recorded many of the same tracks for The Velvet Underground & Nico. The acetate was quickly forgotten, until it somehow wound up in a yard sale three and a half decades later. Since Hill wasn't a fan of the Velvet Underground's music, he managed to sell it for $25,000, a move that he will hopefully not live long enough to regret when people recognize just how great the record is when they finally catch up to it decades in the future.