Never Buy A Picasso At A Yard Sale

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
My version of The Picture Of Dorian Gray. And a cautionary tale for those who watch picker shows on TV.

Submitted: January 25, 2015

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Submitted: January 25, 2015

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I’m putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mike, Frank, and Danielle.  If they hadn’t sucked me in with their show, American Pickers, I would have never started going to garage sales, flea markets, and auctions.  I would have never climbed through the old barns and abandoned buildings I came across during hours of cruising the countryside.  Mike and Frank taught me how to do that.  They call it freestyling.  If not for them, I would have never climbed in a dumpster to retrieve a piece of rusty gold.  I would have never traded cash for trash.  I would have never known what it is like to be junk drunk.  A hoarder.  A junkaholic. 

I would have never started knocking on doors and asking confused strangers, “Who owns that abandoned building down the street?”  Danielle taught me to do that.  People get confused when you tell them you want to buy something they were planning on hauling to the landfill the next sunny weekend.  Likewise, your neighbors get confused when they see the piles of stuff sprouting in your yard.  It’s not my fault.  I filled the house up first.  After that, there wasn’t anywhere else to put it.

I can’t be held responsible for the fact that I climbed into that guy’s attic.  When I was dickering with him for some of the collectibles he had at the yard sale, he mentioned there was more in the house.  He hadn’t had time to go through all the stuff.  The previous owner had been a lifelong hoarder.  When the man died, the family took what they wanted, and sold him the rest along with the house.  This guy had just moved in, and figured he could make a few bucks off of the stuff.  He said, “If you want to go up in the attic, I’ll let you have anything you find for five bucks apiece.”

That’s like telling an alcoholic that happy hour just started.

The dried out planks that lined the rafters of the ancient attic bent with each step I made.  The possibility of falling through the ceiling crossed my mind.  Cobwebs covered everything.  My flashlight barely illuminated the dark space.  It was hot.  Dust stuck to the sweat on my face.  I had to walk hunched over in the low space.  This was head-bumping, ankle-twisting, knuckle-skinning territory.  I was in paradise.  The attic was, as Mike and Frank would say, a honey hole.

I already had a pile of goodies built up when I came across the stack of paintings leaning against the wall.  Dogs playing poker, not today.  Black velvet Elvis, been there, done that.  Then I saw the painting of the young girl singing, with a man playing guitar in the background.

When I took that art appreciation class in college, I was just looking for some elective credits and who knows, maybe I’d meet some hot chicks.  I’d heard artsy girls were easy.  Turns out that isn’t true.  At any rate, I made a B, and actually developed a taste for art.  So my former college, even though I would eventually drop out, must also take part of the blame for what happened.  If it wasn’t for them, I would have never heard of Picasso.

I’d played guitar since I was old enough to hold one.  One of the paintings that struck me the most from the class was The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso.  It shows an old man, in an awkward position, strumming a guitar.  Picasso also got me with the odd colors and shapes he chose for painting portraits, like Dora Maar and Girl with Red Beret.  If you take elements of those three, and throw in the girl from Child with a Dove, you’ll have the painting I found in the attic.

When I saw the Picasso signature, my first thought was that it was a fake.  That is what happens 99.9% of the time when someone thinks they have found some unknown work by a famous artist.  There is a sucker born every minute.  But for five bucks, I could afford the risk.  Stranger things have happened.  Plus, I had no intention of paying full price. 

Danielle taught me to flatter them a little before you get started.  Mike taught me to hit them high on the first one, then go low after that.  Frank taught me how to bundle.  By the time I carried the treasures down the attic stairs, I had my strategy laid out.  I put on my best picker face, and the dance began.

The first thing I said was, “Man, in your great room, that is the coolest fireplace mantle I’ve ever seen.  Are you planning on restoring that?”  I had several replies ready, depending on how he answered.  He said no, he had learned from watching HGTV that original condition architecture was the most sought after.  I gave him my best knowing smile.  I nodded, looked down, and said softly, “Smart guy.”  I wanted him to know that the two of us were in the same secret group.  People who were smart enough to know what stuff was worth.  People who were way too smart to ever have the wool pulled over their eyes. 

Because that’s what I wanted to do to him.  I wanted to buy the Picasso, for almost nothing, without him seeing the signature.  If he got a glimpse of the famous name, it would be game over for me.

I started with a ceramic jug that looked at least a hundred years old.  It was in great condition, and the blue “Martin’s Dairy Childersburg, PA” logo gave the piece a nice look.  I’ve seen the Pickers pay as much as $100 for similar items.  I told the guy, “Look, I know you said everything for $5, but this is worth more than that.  I’ll give you $15 for the jug.”  He smiled and said yes. It was game on.  If Mike had been there, he would have said, “We just broke the ice.”

I went slowly through the next couple of items.  The guy was running the yard sale by himself.  I was hoping to drag things out, to make other buyers stand around, waiting for me to finish.  I wanted to make him impatient.  That’s when people stop paying attention.

The guy interested in the old bicycle did not realize he was my straight man that day.  He was watching my spiel, and when he tried to interrupt to make an offer, I quickly interrupted back.  I said, “Sorry friend, I’m almost done.”  I turned to the seller and said, “I’m not sure if I want that stack of paintings.  None of them are worth much, but I can sell them at a church fundraiser.  I’ll give you five bucks for the whole stack.”  I had put the Picasso in the middle, with Elvis in front. 

The ruse worked.  The man took my money, I loaded up the Bronco with my treasure.  I was a happy hoarder as I drove off.  I couldn’t wait to get to get home, get on the computer, and figure out if I had just scored an unknown Picasso.  Turns out I did score.  I had no idea how big.  Or just how messed up my life would get.

But not right away.  I wouldn’t experience the power the painting held for another six months or so. 

I googled all over the internet, but I couldn’t find any references to the painting.  A lot of artists have “lost” paintings, particularly if they spent their lives in obscurity and did not become popular until after death.  That seemed unlikely with Pablo Picasso.  He attracted the attention of wealthy art patrons while he was still in his twenties, that is almost unheard of in the world of art.  After a couple of days and zero results, I decided my best bet was to have an art appraiser look at it.

The man raised his eyebrows as soon as he saw the painting.  He looked it over with a magnifying glass.  He smiled, and said, “There’s good news, and bad news.”  The good news is, it is a completely authentic painting.  And it is a Picasso.  The bad news is, it’s not a Pablo Picasso.  This is an Anton Picasso.”

Turns out there was this creepy dude in Bulgaria back in the 1920s that eked out a living making reproductions of famous paintings and selling them at street markets.  He specialized in Picasso, he even changed his last name to reflect his obsession with the artist he idolized. 

Serious art collectors would typically not consider reproductions to be collectible.  Under most circumstances, the art appraiser would have never heard of the other Picasso.  But there was a backstory.  In 1995, a Bulgarian named Emil Tenadi set fire to an art gallery in Sofia that had several of the lesser known Picasso’s works on display.  One was a reproduction of Guernica.  A painting the famous Picasso made to capture the horror when a Spanish town of that name was burned to the ground by incendiary bombs.

Tenadi claimed he became possessed when he saw the painting in the gallery.  He was directed by spirits to act out the scene the painting depicted.  According to Tenadi, Anton Picasso was an agent of the Devil.  The publicity from the trial gave the obscure Picasso his 15 minutes of fame, at least in the art world.

I was tempted when the appraiser offered me $50 for the painting.  He said he might be able to get a couple of hundred bucks for it.  Some wealthy collectors get bored with their collections of serious art, and branch out into novelty collecting.  That is the only niche Anton Picasso will likely ever fill.  If only I had been smart enough to take the offer.

But I wasn’t.  I figured I’d hang the painting in my man cave, and have a good story to tell my friends.

If only this had happened in winter, not in the middle of summer.  Then maybe I would have been able put two and two together before everything went wrong.

My day job was running a tree service.  I spent my time climbing up trees, then cutting them down, piece by piece.  Holding a chain saw hours at a time is tough on the body.  From spring through fall, I stayed busy cutting trees.  The collecting, and other hobbies, took a back seat while the money was being made.  Although I never worked Saturday mornings, that was yard sale time.

Things slowed down in the winter.  Sometimes I’d go an entire week without any tree work.  Winter was a good time for collecting.  And for other hobbies, including playing guitar. Playing guitar is hard on the wrists, as is holding a chain saw.  Over the years, I had developed the habit of only playing guitar in the winter, when I wasn’t spending all day holding a vibrating chain saw.

That meant a couple of weeks with really sore fingertips on my left hand, while I built up a new set of callouses for the umpteenth time.  I went through the same routine each time when I renewed my guitar hobby.  It took a while to get the rhythm back.  Still, I felt like I was a better player, better at singing, and better at songwriting, each time I got back into the game.

I had bought the painting in June.  I never got around to hanging it in the man cave.  It ended up in the closet in the spare bedroom.  I forgot about it.

So that January, when I pulled out the guitar and started playing again, I had no idea that I had fallen under the strange power of Anton Picasso.

I’d been playing guitar for 25 years.  I was already pretty good.  With the painting in the closet, I was better than good.  It started with the songwriting.  I cranked out a new song each day for a couple of weeks.  Then I worked out all the rhythm and acoustic guitar parts.  Next all the lead guitar stuff.  After a month, it occurred to me I might be able to do something with my new ability. 

I’d been a songwriter for as long as I had been playing.  Most of my creations were standard three chord stuff.  Not anymore.  The new music was complex.  Likewise with the playing.  I was amazed at the subtleties I was getting out of my Takemine acoustic.  And I was shredding the Stratocaster on lead.  Even my singing, usually an off-key afterthought, was much improved.

I put together a demo at my house, then took the recording to my pal Jon at his recording studio.  He handled the heavy lifting for me when I wanted to record my stuff for real.  Jon also hooked me up with studio musicians for bass guitar, drums, or whatever other instruments I needed.

When I played the first song on the demo, he laughed and said, “That’s real funny.  Is this some new band you discovered?”  Either I used to be really bad, or all of a sudden, I was pretty good.  I picked up a guitar leaning against the wall and played another song, unplugged.  Jon was astonished.  When I finished, he said, “We need to get started right away.  This stuff is good.”

That was how my meteoric rise to rock stardom began.  Within a year, I was on tour, opening for one of the big name bands.  A year later, the hottest new bands were opening for me.  And I was dumb enough to think that I was the force behind all of this.  I should have known better.  I should have put two and two together.  I should have known enough to hang on to the painting.

The next few years were a blur.  I was on the road constantly.  I had hardly been home.  I lived too far from a major airport considering what a jet setter I had become.  Even when I wasn’t touring, I had gotten in the habit of staying in the luxury suites of my favorite hotel chains.  No one ever accused me of not letting success go to my head.

When I hit a stretch where I wouldn’t be in the studio or on tour for a couple of months, I decided it was time to move to the West Coast.  Hollywood, here I came.  I laid out the down payment on a mansion with an ocean view, and moved in. 

I didn’t see any reason to even go back to the old house.  My brother could take care of the movers and get it sold.  He went through everything before the van came.  I told him to keep anything he wanted, let the movers pack up the furniture and anything of value, and have a big yard sale to get rid of all the collectibles.  I didn’t have time for collecting anymore.  Or so I thought.

As a matter of fact, I would have plenty of time.  I can pinpoint the exact moment my brother sold the Anton Picasso at the yard sale.  I was in my new digs, working on my latest composition.  The moment the proud new owner handed my brother that five dollar bill, the guitar pick dropped out of my hand.  My arms were made out of bricks.  I bent to grab the pick, my fingers felt like there was a leather work glove between them and the pick.  Somehow, I had forgotten how to play guitar.

I thought I must have had a stroke.  I spent the day in the emergency room.  The friendly doctor assured me I was completely healthy.  No strokes, heart attacks or blood clots.  They didn’t have any tests to analyze why I could not play guitar or sing.  She suggested it might be stress.  I had been working too hard, and playing harder.  I should take a vacation, or try some group therapy.  She told me to go home, have a drink, smoke a bowl, maybe tomorrow I’d be back to normal.

I wasn’t.

My agent, Mortie, was taking it even worse than me.  I was merely suicidal.  Mortie had a wife and kids, he was probably hashing though the pros and cons of murder/suicide.  Things like that happen sometimes when people realize their financial empire is about to come crashing down.  It took us a while to work through the various phases, anger, denial, bargaining, before we realized we had to cancel the upcoming tour.

Mortie was the one who calmed down enough to put together a plan.  Something that would buy some time, to see if this problem would somehow get fixed.  He found a wrecked Ford Bronco, the same color as mine, and took some pictures.  Then made up a story about how I broke my left arm pretty bad in the accident, the doctors weren’t sure when I’d be able to play guitar again.  The concussion left me with vertigo, I couldn’t even stand on a stage and sing.  He cancelled the tour and the next recording session.  That was the end of my career as a rock star.

Things fell apart much faster than they had fallen together.  I had been spending the money as soon as it hit the checking account.  By the time the mortgage company sent me that unfriendly letter about being past due, I did not have one dollar to my name.  I was broke.

Luckily, the old house hadn’t sold yet, even though it was almost empty.  And it was paid off, I could avoid being homeless if I could keep up the property taxes .  My brother loaned me a few bucks.  I bought a chain saw and gear and took out an ad in the local Bargain Hunter magazine.  I resumed my career as a tree guy.

That first job, when I climbed up that maple, and pulled the cord on the chain saw, that’s when it hit me.  How could I so deftly handle a chain saw, hanging sideways fifty feet up in a tree, yet not be able to strum a guitar?  That’s when it hit me.  I finally put two and two together.  The curse of Anton Picasso became apparent to its most recent victim.

Naturally, the first thing I did was to try to find the painting.  I gave my brother the third degree about the buyer.  All he could remember was, it was some average sized guy, with average looks.  He didn’t notice what the guy was driving.  If you need someone to steer a heavily loaded rig through a treacherous mountain pass during a blizzard, call my brother.  If you need a detective, check the yellow pages.

I went to every art gallery, antique mall, auction and flea market.  All of the same places I used to go during my collecting days.  I went to every yard sale within 100 miles.  I put handbills on utility poles, next to the lost dog and make money from home ads.  I never found the painting.  My Anton Picasso, along with my musical talent, was gone forever.

But you can’t keep a good man down.  Trees keep growing, and keep needing to be cut down.  I’ve started collecting again.  And I’ve got a new hobby.  I’m taking a class in figure drawing and oil painting.  But don’t worry, I’m not planning on changing my last name.

SOMEWHERE ELSE

Donald Trump awakened early, as he always does.  The day would be a long one, they usually are when you are a workaholic.  He starts each day the same way.  Two cups of coffee in the study while he reads the morning paper.  This is his favorite part of the day, sitting in the leather chair, beneath the painting his father had purchased years ago.  Daddy gave it to Donald when he was getting his start in the business world. 

The painting had made an impression on his father, years before, when he was a young, ambitious entrepreneur.  Donald liked it too.  The man with a wistful look on his face, in front of tall buildings under construction.The Donald wasn’t much of an art critic.  But he knew he was a big Anton Picasso fan.


© Copyright 2017 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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