CARL RICE'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE: LET THE SELLER BEWARE!
By Frank Ceresi and Carol McMains
It has become increasingly obvious that our country is enjoying a collecting renaissance. The signs are everywhere. Each week millions of viewers marvel at the stories related on Antiques Roadshow, public television's wildly popular collectibles show. We all especially enjoy rare tales where something is found in one's old musty attic and it turns out to be a classic antique. Have you ever dreamed of going to a flea market or browsing around a Saturday yard sale and stumbling onto a significant artifact or, in fact, a national treasure? Well, let us introduce you to Carl Rice and tell you how he and an American painter, deceased for nearly a century, by the name Martin Johnson Heade became, shall we say, acquainted.
The Adventure Begins
It was a Saturday in 1996 like most in Tucson, Arizona for Carl Rice. Like many of us, Carl enjoyed going to various antique fairs and yard sales to relax and, who knows, perhaps pick up an item or two that may, in fact, have some minimal value. For years Carl, with the support of his sometimes reluctant wife, would scour the countryside and pick up knickknacks and artwork. Even though most of their "finds" were really not much more than glorified junk, the couple was experiencing some financial pressures and, well, hope springs eternal! After reading an advertisement in his local newspaper, Carl wound his way to an estate sale, moseyed around a bit, was getting ready to leave but noticed two innocuous but pretty looking floral still lifes. Carl went towards the works, liked the "expression" of the pieces, and upon closer examination noticed that one of the paintings contained the initials "M.J.H." Although he bought and sold some art on a very occasional basis, Carl was certainly not an educated purchaser and the initials were simply not familiar to his untrained eye. In fact, according to Carl most of the pieces he bought at flea markets and estate sales had "turned out to be frauds, forgeries or . . . created by less popular artists." Once Carl made about $50 on a "find" but there were little bragging rights in that modest profit. The asking price for the two was $60 and Carl plunked down the money and trekked back home with his booty.
Though clearly not thrilled that Carl brought home "more junk," Mrs. Rice knew that at times a bit of research goes a long way. They did a bit of investigation and noticed that the initials on the painting appeared to be similar to that of one Martin Johnson Heade, a great American 19th century painter. Though they were unfamiliar with his work, their cursory research indicated that Heade was quite famous and his work could be very desirable. Could they be holding a true national treasure of a great American painter? Were they on the cusp of every collector's, every weekend picker's, every Saturday morning market junkie's dream?
The Adventure Continues
The Rices knew enough to send pictures of their find to a reputable auction house for authentication. Off went the photos of the paintings to Christie's in New York City and the couple was hopeful but pretty much resigned to receive a polite form rejection letter. The Rices would, however, be wrong as Christie's authenticated the paintings as true Heades, identified them as Magnolia Blossoms on Blue Velvet and Cherokee Roses, and offered to sell them at one of their premier auctions! It's every Saturday morning "pickers" dream, isn't it?
Mr. and Mrs. Rice were stunned, happy and especially thrilled to learn that they were in possession of two true national treasures from one of America's great painters. The paintings, they learned, were by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) who was considered one of the most important and influential American "luminist" artists, a popular 19th century school of painting that emphasizes a particular clarity of beauty and light. In fact, Heade is known for his lush sea storm scenes, crystalline floral paintings and landscapes, and his works have been prominently exhibited nationally.
As we mentioned, the Rices were not wealthy people and had experienced financial hard times, but they did scrape together enough money to attend the Christie's auction that was held on December 4, 1996 in New York City. Christie's did their usual excellent job by preparing a nice, fully illustrated auction catalogue and included the work with other great American 19th century painters. The Rices were justifiably excited. They had reason to be . . . for when the hammer sounded its final thrust Magnolia Blossoms sold for an astounding $937,500 and its sister painting Cherokee Rose fetched an additional $134,500. The Rices, by now "thrilled beyond words," did what they never dreamed they would be able to do only a few months earlier . . . they bought a lovely house! In the meantime, the new owner, knowing the value and importance of the paintings, promptly allowed the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to display the magnificent paintings. Everyone seemed happy, right? However, for all of you Saturday morning dreamers, the Rices adventure did not quite end yet. In fact, believe it or not, it just began.
The Adventure Goes Into High Gear
About two months after the auction, Carl Rice received a phone call from one of the representatives from the estate sale that sold the paintings. Because the Rices were honest and forthright in the description of their "find," and the information was contained in the Christie's catalogue, it seems that the estate representative learned of the sale and was not only livid but actually filed suit against the Rices. Basically, the estate alleged that the original sale of the two paintings should be rescinded because it was "clearly a mutual mistake." In other words, the estate argued that they "erred" by selling valuable paintings to the Rices for a mere pittance and, conversely, Mr. Rice "mistakenly" bought over a million dollars worth of art for $60. That, the argument continued, was essentially fraudulent and unconscionable to boot!
"Bewildered is the best way I can describe my emotions," Mr. Rice told us. After contacting a few large law firms in New York City, whose fee would have eaten up most of the Rices' newfound wealth, they were fortunate to find an attorney by the name of Joseph Watkins from their hometown in Tucson, Arizona. "I knew from the beginning that the lawsuit should fail," Mr. Watkins told us. "After all, the Rices did nothing wrong. In fact, Carl Rice simply paid the asking price and, almost miraculously, discovered a national treasure. Who hasn't dreamed of being in the right place at the right time and honestly come across a major find?" Essentially, the Rices answered the lawsuit by making a simple assertion that the estate -- that is, the sellers -- bore the complete risk of their own mistake.
Four long years of uncertainty passed as the lawsuit wound its way through the court system in the State of Arizona. What would happen should be of great interest to everyone who spends countless weekends looking for that once in a lifetime find. Would the estate be able to recover the Rices' fortune and, thus, derive the benefit from the sale of the two paintings that they once owned? Or would the Rices prevail? After all, didn't Carl Rice actually uncover not one but two national treasures that would possibly never have seen the light of day? Why, one might ask, should they be penalized because the seller, not the buyer, made what was obviously a grievous mistake? Caveat Emptier means "let the buyer beware" in legalese but shouldn't the seller bear the responsibility for their own mistake?
On December 14, 2000, the Court of Appeals for the State of Arizona issued a decision which will certainly cheer those of us who love to search for that rare find . . . an otherwise hidden national treasure. First, the Court concluded that the estate was not entitled to rescind the sale and, although clearly a mistake had existed as to the value of the paintings, it was the estate, not Mr. Rice, who bore the risk of that mistake. The Court went on to state that the sellers had ample opportunity to discover what they were selling and failed to do so. Instead, the Court pointed out, the estate ignored the possibility that the paintings were valuable and sued only after learning of the paintings value . . . as a result of the sole efforts of the Rices. "Under these circumstances," the Court ruled, "the estate was the victim of it's own folly . . ." The Rices won!
The Adventure Ends . . . Happily for the Rices!
It's a nice tale . . . even with the lawsuit! However, the lesson of Carl Rice's adventure is something that we all should remember every time we pass an antique store or anxiously get ready to enter a yard sale or neighborhood estate sale. The lesson is that we may end up discovering something that would not only pique our interest and perhaps be quite valuable, but the possibilities still exist that we might uncover true works of greatness. Further, the discovery might not only bring financial gain but something even more important that that. Let's let Mrs. Rice have the word. "The most wonderful feeling that I have had was not necessarily the money but it was when Carl and I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts unannounced and I could see both of these wonderful Heade paintings on display for all to see and enjoy. People were smiling as they gazed at the beauty of the flowers. Isn't that what life is about?"