April 20, 2012: Olaf the Picker

It seems everyone now wants to emulate the crew from the television shows: “Storage Wars” or “American Pickers” and find hidden treasures in barns, attics, and storage lockers.  The personalities on these shows captivate us: from Barry’s eccentricity to Dave’s greed.  The pickers from Iowa remind us of our brothers or uncles or of the romantic traveling nomads.  All of us think we can do this and the storage company here in Milbank always gets calls about people inquiring about auctions.  It looks so simple, hidden gold under every pile and jewels behind every door….well if that is your thinking, think again.  You see, I have also had a bit of this delusion.

It all started last October, well it REALLY started when I was a kid, but this story started when I was poking around a thrift store in Frankfurt Germany.  I think I know a little about art and have amassed a bit of an art collection.  What I stumbled upon in this out of the way store in Frankfurt was the preverbal ‘diamond in the rough.’  It was a painting by a German artist named Wilhelm Hempfing, painted in 1939.  This was no Picasso or a missing Rembrandt and quite possibly his art wouldn’t appeal to the sensitive sensibilities of many people who are reading this, but it would fit quite nicely into my collection and the person occupying the store which it turned out was a consignment shop, had no clue as to what they had.   The owner of the painting, “Peter” contacted me by email and we made a deal for a very reasonable price.  The painting needed professional cleaning and some repair but that was in my budget and even considering the shipping, I was getting a nice work at a real bargain so to get the deal done, I had a friend of mine send the man his money by Western Union and I waited for my treasure to arrive, and I waited, and I waited…….

The emails started, “Hullo Olaf!” and they ended, “pack tomorrow” or “worry not, painting on way.”  Mostly he liked to discuss beer or drinking.  Apparently and correctly, he thought American beer was bad, “very bod.”  He wrote once, “like from cow.”  I don’t think he was thinking of the milk.   November came and went and the emails changed to, “picture big, very big.”

By the holidays, the emails had stopped and I was thinking if I knew anyone who went to Germany, lived in Germany, or even wanted to go to Germany.  My friends in Sweden didn’t go that way and my English friends, well, they stayed in England.   It seemed I’d have to fly back and take control of the situation.  Let me see, $900 for plane fare, $500 for shipping, $100 for wire fee, $1500 for painting, hotel, rental car, cab fares…..ugh!, the experience…….priceless?  WHERE IS MY POT OF GOLD???

In January, Peter was back on the email but sounded as helpless as ever so I came up with a new plan.  He would send it to England to a friend and the friend send it to me.  This was EU, no pesky customs forms, no risking questions to Geman VAT athorities (just guessing here). He was excited and sounded like the new idea was a winner.  “Tumorruw, I send” he wrote…well tomorrow became next week and by February the promises stopped.  He would neither give me his address nor appeared interested in allowing me to contract a shipping agent from Hamburg to send the painting.  I began to think I had been had.  This man had set up this painting in an elaborate scheme to ensnarl a tourist from North America to buy his painting and then he’d keep the money and the painting.  It was the perfect plan, except, it was clear that “Peter” wasn’t that bright, and this wasn’t that valuable of a painting, and it had been at the thrift store for a long time.  By February, he was back to discussing beer and so I figured I needed a newer plan.

So I tried threatening him.  He didn’t understand what I said on the first email.  So using the most careful plain German I could use from my Berlitz phrase book intermixed with some derogatories I had written in my college German textbook,  I said “either you send or you pay me back.”  I had no response for two weeks.  Then lady luck smiled on me.  My friend in England, Howard, who is actually a friend of a friend of mine, but we’ve met twice.  We have drank wine together.  He had a friend.  Yes, it was that remote.  She lived near enough Frankfurt and after sharing her my story, she somehow volunteered to be a middleman or woman in this case.

Peter answered his email so fast fearing he would have to give back his beer money, I suppose, that the painting was at Liz’s house within hours.  I really don’t know why she is being so helpful, but this whole event proves to me that living is a cooperative venture.  I have always stated that no good deed ever goes unpunished and over the years, I have helped out a great deal of people but it has been rare to have it repaid, but now I stand corrected and feel now I need to help out everybody, no matter how silly it may seem.

I have yet to see my fine work of art but it IS now coming.  This whole event has led me to some advice for those of you seeking riches in out-of-the-way places.  First, we forget about opportunity costs.  This painting had lots of opportunity and other hidden costs.  How much was the bother of me thinking about it for six months worth?  How about the bother for Liz, Howard, and my other friends I asked?  We also don’t think about costs to fix up these rough ‘gems.’  There is also the retail and wholesale pricing.  There are taxes, fees, storage, overhead, the costs go on and on and can really add up.

All in all, most items abandoned in storage lockers are not worth the costs of hauling them away.  Most items rusting out in a field are junk. Stuff sitting in an old shed…trash. Occasionally, including me, we all get lucky.  My Hempfing painting will eventually bless my basement wall after it is restored, and in the end will probably cost me in total what it would have cost me buying one similar from a reputable dealer, but there are the intangible values.  I now have a new friend in Germany named Liz, whom I am forever indebted to, and probably will have to visit and take out for dinner sometime.  I have also another interesting story to share.  The value of those?…….priceless.  Life is about the adventure and as it has been said about life, ‘it is never too late to pad one’s obituary.’  I apparently keep working on mine every day.

Keep looking for your pot of gold, my friends!


5 thoughts on “April 20, 2012: Olaf the Picker

  1. Wow! I am so glad – the painting looks awesome. That’s the first time I have seen it. Hope all is well with you and family. Love, Jan

  2. Brad You are priceless to be so patient and find something good in all. Yes the journey makes life what it is.
    Luv & Miss you Susan

  3. Update on my painting. It showed up on Friday. There was some trouble with German customs, the painitng got stuck in Omaha for three days and then the Spee-dee delivery guy left the painting at the local chevy dealership. The crate was opened, painting in one piece and now hangs on our wall!

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