6 Valuable Works of Art Discovered in People's Attics and Garages

Valuable artworks aren’t always displayed in museums, or owned by private collectors or foundations. In some rare cases, they've slipped through the cracks—either because the artist didn't become famous until after his or her death, because the technology to properly verify a work's provenance didn't exist, or because the owner wasn’t savvy enough to realize they were sitting on—or staring at—a cultural goldmine.

Here are six instances in which long-lost paintings surfaced to prominence after years of being stashed in garages, attics, or basements. In addition to being amazed, maybe you'll gain the motivation to clean your own storage spaces in search of forgotten treasures.

1. A CONTESTED CARAVAGGIO PAINTING

Caravaggio's painting “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” painted between the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, late 16th to early 17th century 

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In 2014, French homeowners in Toulouse discovered much more than just a puddle in the attic while trying to fix their leaky roof. Tucked away in the rafters was a hidden painting that may be the handiwork of Italian artist Caravaggio.

The painting—a version of the artist’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599 to 1602), on display in Rome’s National Gallery of Ancient Art—was cleaned and analyzed in Paris, where experts debated its true origins. Some experts claim that Louis Finson—a 17th-century Flemish Baroque painter who both studied and imitated Caravaggio’s style—created the work, while others believe that the Renaissance master painted it himself sometime in the early 1600s. (According to Finson’s will, the Flemish painter owned a copy of Judith Beheading Holofernes, but it disappeared around 400 years ago.)

Art expert Eric Turquin asserts that the attic Caravaggio is indeed genuine, citing its brush strokes, intricate details, and use of light and energetic style as proof. Other experts, like British art critic Jonathan Jones, claim that the painting lacks Caravaggio’s “psychological intensity” or signature realism. Meanwhile, the contested Caravaggio work continues to be a magnet for controversy. In 2016, art historian Giovanni Agosti resigned from the board of Milan’s Brera Art Gallery after the institution displayed the work alongside authenticated Caravaggio paintings.

That said, you won’t be seeing the polarizing Judith Beheading Holofernes replica showcased abroad anytime soon: The French government has placed an export ban on the canvas until November 2018, to prevent it being snapped up by an international collector.

2. A NEWLY AUTHENTICATED VAN GOGH LANDSCAPE

Van Gogh, "Sunset at Montmajour," 1888

Van Gogh, Sunset at Montmajour, 1888

In 1908, Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad purchased a 19th century painting of the French countryside at sunset, called Sunset at Montmajour. It once belonged to Theo van Gogh, noted art dealer and brother of Vincent van Gogh. Initially believed to be the famous artist’s handiwork, the 1888 artwork was reportedly relegated to the attic after the French ambassador to Sweden visited Mustad's home and suggested it was a fake. There it sat until the collector’s death in 1970.

New homeowners suspected that the painting might be a van Gogh, so they brought it to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 1991. There, experts gave preliminary confirmation that the work was inauthentic, partly because it lacked a signature. But a few years later, art historians used new technologies to reexamine the painting, leading them to a decidedly different conclusion.

In 2013, van Gogh historians announced that Sunset at Montmajour had indeed been painted by the iconic Post-Impressionist painter. They noted that it was painted on the same type of canvas, and using the same techniques, as paintings van Gogh had completed in Arles, France. Also, it was listed as part of Theo van Gogh’s collection in 1890, and had “180”—the painting’s number in his collection inventory—painted on its back.

Adding to their certainty, an 1888 letter from Vincent to Theo described the painting in detail, and even mentioned the very day he’d painted it. (Before this, experts had mistakenly believed that van Gogh had been referring to another painting, an 1888 work titled The Rocks.)

After its authenticity was confirmed, Sunset at Montmajour was displayed at the Van Gogh Museum in 2013. To this day, it’s the first full-sized painting by the Dutch artist to be newly authenticated since 1928.

3. A FORGOTTEN JACKSON POLLOCK PAINTING

"Untitled Gouache," Jackson Pollack, 1912 to 1956

Untitled Gouache, Jackson Pollack, 1912 to 1956

Courtesy J. Levine Auction & Appraisal

In December 2015, while helping an elderly neighbor in Sun City, Arizona prepare to move into a retirement home, a local man spotted a Los Angeles Lakers poster in the garage, signed by Kobe Bryant. They contacted Scottsdale-based J. Levine Auction & Appraisal to gauge its value, but the piece of sports memorabilia ended up being one of the least valuable artworks in the house: While investigating the garage, auction house employees stumbled upon a painting that appeared to be by Jackson Pollock, along with a cache of works by Color Field painter Kenneth Noland, American abstract artist Jules Olitski, and visual artist Cora Kelley Ward.

The homeowner had inherited the treasure trove of paintings from his half-sister, New York socialite Jenifer Gordon Cosgriff, who died in 1993. Private investigators hired to investigate the works determined that Cosgriff had been friends with Clement Greenberg, the mid-20th century modern art critic and essayist, and artist Hazel Guggenheim McKinley, the sister of socialite and arts philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim. Both of these art world figures were friends with the artists whose works were found in the garage.

Josh Levine, the owner and CEO of J. Levine Auction & Appraisal, estimates the value of the potential Pollock—which has suffered moisture, heat, and smoke damage—to be around $10 to $15 million (or even more if the painting is authenticated). But since the untitled painting is unsigned and undated (and Pollock, himself, died in 1956), proving that it's a mid-century masterpiece was no easy task.

Thanks to Levine, its provenance has been traced, and forensic scientists have also dated its materials back to the mid 20th century. (Levine says he's paid for these services out of pocket, totaling up to $50,000.) But these bona fides haven't assuaged the concerns of art dealers, who worry about forgeries and various legal issues.

"I'm convinced it's a Jackson Pollock, but nobody will attest that it's by Jackson Pollock," Levine told The Phoenix New Times in June. Hopefully for Levine, whoever buys the painting at auction won't mind. (For now, its sale has been postponed until all interested bidders have the requisite funds to purchase it.)

4. A LONG-LOST REMBRANDT PAINTING

"The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of Smell)," painted between 1624 and 1625 by Rembrandt van Rijn as one of five oil paintings in his series "The Senses."

The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of Smell), painted between 1624 and 1625 by Rembrandt van Rijn as one of five oil paintings in his series The Senses.

A small, slightly damaged oil painting that was expected to sell for just $500 to $800 at auction ended up fetching millions after experts realized it was a long-lost painting by Rembrandt, the Dutch Old Master painter.

Created by Rembrandt when he was in his late teens, the 1624 or 1625 painting—called The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of the Sense of Smell)—was one work in a series that the artist likely created to depict the five senses. (To this day, the artwork that represents Taste is still missing.) It portrays an unconscious young man who’s being revived with what appear to be smelling salts.

Despite being the product of a master artist, the canvas initially escaped notice. Not only was the 9-inch work encased in a Victorian frame, making it appear to be a 19th century Continental School painting, but its surface was flaking and its wooden backing had cracks. “The picture was remarkably unremarkable,” recalled John Nye, owner of Nye and Co. auction house in Bloomfield, New Jersey, according to Reuters. “It looked like a dark, discolored portrait of three people, one of whom is passed out.”

Furthermore, the work had also sat in a New Jersey basement for years. But after the homeowners died, their adult children hired Nye and Co. to comb the property for valuables. Nye paid the residence a personal visit, but the Rembrandt-in-disguise didn't stick out among offerings like old furniture, silver, and other artworks. And "at no point prior to the sale did anyone show any interest in the painting," the appraiser later said in a statement. "We had absolutely no inquiries, nor did it stir excitement at the preview.”

Once the painting—then dubbed Triple Portrait with Lady Fainting—finally hit the auction block, Paris art dealers immediately suspected that the work was an early Rembrandt, noticing its similarity to other paintings in the artist's five-sense series. The dealers ended up scoring the work for the bargain price of $870,000 (or just over $1 million, after factoring in the added sale premium). In turn, they sold it to Thomas Kaplan, a New York financier and Dutch Golden Age art collector, for a reported $3 to $4 million.

Conservationists later discovered Rembrandt’s initials on the painting, under a layer of varnish, proving that the painting was indeed his work. In 2016, the restored painting was showcased at Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum, along with other works loaned from Kaplan’s collection, including Rembrandt’s The Stone Operation (An Allegory of the Sense of Touch) and The Three Musicians (An Allegory of the Sense of Hearing).

5. A TREASURE TROVE OF ARTHUR PINAJIAN ARTWORKS

In 2007, two men who purchased a tiny, run-down cottage in Bellport, New York for around $300,000 ended up getting way more bang for their buck. Thomas Schultz and Larry Joseph, who simply intended to flip the home, were told they were also welcome to a stockpile of artworks stored in the home’s single-car garage. There sat thousands of paintings, drawings, and journals that were the handiwork of Arthur Pinajian, a reclusive Armenian-American artist and comic book creator.

The cottage had once belonged to Pinajian, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 85, and his sister, Armen, who supported him financially. The artist never achieved widespread fame during his lifetime, but his works of abstract expressionism steadily gained appreciation—and value—after his death. Today, he’s remembered for creating the first cross-dressing superhero, Madame Fatal, for Crack Comics, along with carefully rendered works of Abstract Expressionism. Some art experts now refer to him in the same breath as giants like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.

Bitter about his lack of success, Pinajian had reportedly told his relatives to dispose of his works after he died. However, his family ended up ignoring his orders, saving much of his output. There it remained in the garage for years, collecting dust, fungus, and bugs.

Schultz and Joseph—who paid an extra $2500 for Pinajian's collection—quickly realized they had something special on their hands: “We had no idea of the worth or artistic merit of any of this stuff; it was basically a big mess,” Schultz told The New York Times in 2007. “But we started to realize that we were staring at the life and work and passion of an artist who had been painting every day for more than 50 years. And we said to each other, ‘There’s no way we’re going to let this collection get thrown away.’”

The two considered turning the home into a museum dedicated to Pinajian’s life and career. Ultimately, the project never reached fruition, but Schultz still managed to cement the artist's legacy another way: by introducing his work to the renowned contemporary art scholar William Innes Homer, a relative of one of his acquaintances. In turn, an impressed Homer contacted the equally noted art historian Peter Hastings Falk, who also considered Pinajian's work to be visionary.

"If you look at the history of abstraction in America, certainly the headlines are given to [Jackson] Pollock and Franz Kline and [Willem] de Kooning and all of the stars of that period who are now ensconced in the pantheon of American art history," Falk said in a 2013 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

"And it's long been thought that no one else could ever crack into that elite rank because, of course, everyone has been discovered and art historians already know everything," Falk said. "The really fun thing about this is here is the dean of American art historians who is just simply astonished—and I was, too. That's what makes this such an extraordinary story."

Falk—who would become the exhibitions director and chief curator of Pinajian’s estate—valued the artist’s entire collection at $30 million. Since then, galleries like Gallery 125 in Bellport, New York; Lawrence Fine Art in East Hampton, New York; and the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum in Woodstock, New York have all exhibited Pinajian's work, and several of his oil paintings have fetched as much as $87,000 when they were shown in New York City in 2013.

6. A HISTORIC PAINTING BY HENRY ARTHUR MCARDLE

"The Battle of San Jacinto," a 1901 painting by Texas artist Henry Arthur ("Harry") McArdle.

The Battle of San Jacinto, Henry Arthur ("Harry") McArdle, 1901

Courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

A long-lost battle scene painted by Henry Arthur McArdle, a 19th-century Irish immigrant who went on to become an important Texas artist, was rediscovered in a seemingly unlikely place: a West Virginia attic.

McArdle is best known for his mural-sized painting depicting the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, a pivotal battle in the Texas Revolution led by General Sam Houston. Painted in 1895, the work was later lent to the state of Texas—along with Dawn at the Alamo (1905), another large-scale painting—where it was hung in the Senate chamber of the Texas State Capitol. The two paintings still hang in the capitol to this day, along with four other McArdle originals.

Records reportedly show that McArdle had painted a smaller version of the painting in 1901, which some say was commissioned by Texas art patron J. T. DeShields. However, McArdle is said to have kept the work for himself after DeShields failed to pay the painting’s full price. The story gets a little dicier from there, but it’s believed that the painting was later passed down to family members who settled in West Virginia, home state of McArdle's second wife, Isophene Lacy Dunnington. Meanwhile, some experts thought the work had been destroyed in a house fire.

In 2010, McArdle’s descendent, Jon Buell, discovered the dirty painting in his grandmother’s attic, hidden between the rafters underneath a tarp. She claimed that the painting—which had sat in the attic since the 1930s—was worthless. (It was “just a working drawing,” she said, according to Fox Business.)

Knowing his matriarch was sitting on historic gold, Buell received permission to contact a Texas auction house. The small Battle of San Jacinto painting was found to be in good condition, albeit with a few small punctures. It ended up selling for $334,000 to a Texas buyer.

11 Facts About John James Audubon

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

You might be familiar with the name John James Audubon from the bird conservation-focused Audubon Society—which he had nothing to do with founding—or the famous illustrations in his groundbreaking natural history collection, The Birds of America. But there are a few surprising bits of history about this quintessential American naturalist ... like the fact that, originally, he was neither American nor named Audubon.

1. John James Audubon immigrated to America to avoid serving in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

John James Audubon was born Jean Rabin in April 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). He was an illegitimate son of a French naval officer/plantation owner, Jean Audubon, and a chambermaid named Jeanne Rabin, who died soon after he was born. In 1791, after Jean Audubon had returned to live in France, he arranged for his son and another illegitimate child to be sent there so he could formally adopt them. Jean Rabin was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.

In 1803, his father sent 18-year-old Jean-Jacques Audubon to Pennsylvania to avoid his conscription into Napoleon’s armies. There, he anglicized his name to John James Audubon.

2. America’s leading ornithologist had a beef with John James Audubon.

Eastern screech-owls from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

In 1810, before he became a full-time artist, Audubon and his business partner Ferdinand Rozier owned a shop in Louisville, Kentucky. One day, in strolled Alexander Wilson, an eminent ornithologist who was seeking subscriptions for his magnum opus in progress, American Ornithology. (At the time it was common for authors to seek subscriptions from members of the public that would pay for the completion of the work.) As Audubon looked at the engravings, Rozier said in French, “My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better.” Audubon ended up taking Wilson on a few hunting trips, but did not subscribe. Wilson would later write about Louisville, “Science or literature has not one friend in this place.”

While Wilson died in 1813—leaving his book unfinished—Audubon was just getting started traveling the country and illustrating birds. When he arrived in Philadelphia, the country’s intellectual capital, he got a chilly reception from Wilson’s colleagues. “[Naturalist] George Ord was so afraid that Audubon would totally bury the great, respected Alexander Wilson,” Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, told Mental Floss in 2017, that he “arranged for Philadelphia to basically close down [to Audubon], so he could not publish there.” The snub forced Audubon to seek his own subscribers in the UK when he decided to publish The Birds of America.

3. Another Bonaparte tried to help John James Audubon’s artistic career.

In 1824, Audubon met Napoleon’s nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a respected ornithologist. Bonaparte was, ironically, working to complete Wilson’s American Ornithology and was interested in Audubon’s art. Bonaparte even bought his drawing of a great crow-blackbird (now called the boat-tailed grackle) for use in his book. But according to legend, when Bonaparte took Audubon’s drawing to be engraved, the engraver sniffed, “I think your work extraordinary for one self-taught, but we in Philadelphia are used to seeing very correct drawing.” The engraving was made nonetheless, and Bonaparte proclaimed it “a faithful representation of both sexes … drawn by that zealous observer of nature and skilful artist Mr. John J. Audubon.”

4. At first, nobody thought The Birds of America would succeed.

Green herons from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon’s lack of success in Philadelphia, he traveled to Europe to attempt to find subscribers and printers for the hundreds of bird paintings that would become the Birds of America in book form. Audubon had the idea to print his artwork life-size on double elephant paper, measuring around 39.5 inches by 26.5 inches. Initially, the reaction to Audubon’s plan was muted. A bookseller named Mr. Bohn explained that such a giant book would never sell, since it would take up so much space on a table that it would either shame all the other books or render the table useless.

But that was before he saw the drawings. Several days later Audubon met the bookseller again and showed him his work. “Mr. Bohn was at first simply surprised, then became enthusiastic, and finally said they must be published the full size of life,” Audubon wrote. The resulting book, featuring 435 engraved and hand-colored plates, is now one of the most expensive in the world. Rare copies sell at auction for around $10 million.

5. John James Audubon sparked a controversy about vultures …

Before Audubon, vultures had been lauded for their sense of smell. The 1579 text Euphues asks, “Doth not the eagle see clearer, the vulture smell better, the mole hear lightlier?” In the 1770s, Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith called vultures “cruel, unclean, and indolent” but admitted that “their sense of smelling, however, is amazingly great.”

But in 1826, Audubon presented an “Account of the Habits of the Turkey Buzzard … with the view of exploding the opinion generally entertained of its extraordinary power of Smelling” at the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh. Audubon described how he could sneak up very close behind a vulture and it wouldn’t fly away until he showed himself. He then ran experiments. In the first, he filled a deer skin with grass to approximate a recently deceased animal and observed a vulture attack the odorless prey. In the second, he hid a putrefying hog carcass in some grass, and no vulture found it, even though the stench prevented Audubon from getting within 30 yards of it.

Most of the Edinburgh crowd agreed with Audubon, but eccentric explorer and naturalist Charles Waterton demurred. Waterton had written of his own experiments in which turkey vultures would take away lizards and frogs “as soon as they began to stink.” But, according to zoologist Lucy Cooke, Waterton “was said to have a habit of hiding under the table at dinner parties to bite his guests’ legs like a dog, and delighted in elaborate, taxidermy-based practical jokes. A particularly inspired prank involved his fashioning an effigy of one of his (many) enemies out of a howler monkey’s buttocks.” So there’s that.

6. … and even Charles Darwin got involved.

Baltimore orioles from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Scientists took sides in what the London Quarterly Review called “the vulture controversy.” Nosarians believed vultures used their sense of smell, and anti-nosarians believed they used sight. In South Carolina, some of Audubon’s supporters commissioned a painting of a dead sheep and placed offal 10 feet away from it outdoors. Vultures attacked the painting. Even Charles Darwin conducted experiments on whether vultures could smell.

Later research [PDF] suggested that Audubon likely mistook black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which primarily use sight, for turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), which actually use smell to locate carrion. Cooke notes that Audubon described animals that seem to occasionally hunt live animals, which indicates black vultures, not turkey vultures. Most New World vultures use sight, and only a few use smell. Back in the 19th century, Waterton had been increasingly shunned for his anti-nosarian views. “Which is a shame” Cooke writes, “because he was right.”

7. John James Audubon discovered birds that don’t exist.

Audubon is credited with discovering around 25 species and 12 subspecies, but some of his other birds were later identified as being either immature birds or sexually dimorphic specimens. Beyond these, there are five “mystery birds” that appear nowhere but in Audubon’s watercolors: the carbonated swamp warbler, Cuvier’s kinglet, Townsend’s finch (or Townsend’s bunting), small-headed flycatcher, and blue mountain warbler. The Audubon Society also includes the Bartram's vireo in the list. These unidentifiable birds were probably hybrids or known birds with aberrant colorations.

8. John James Audubon might have been the first bird bander.

Great egret from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Soon after arriving in the U.S., Audubon attached tied some silver thread around the legs of Eastern phoebes (he called them pewee flycatchers). The birds left the area in October. When they returned the following spring, Audubon found two still sporting silver threads. His experiment is often called the first bird banding experiment in the western hemisphere.

A recent article in Archives of Natural History casts doubt on the story, though. Audubon claimed 40 percent of his tagged eastern phoebes returned home, but a larger scale study found only around 1.5 percent of banded birds returned. Audubon may have been in France at the time of the phoebes’ return, too.

9. John James Audubon illustrated a long-lost New Jersey bank note.

Generations of Audubon scholars have hunted for a mysterious bank note that Audubon allegedly illustrated in 1824. In his journals, Audubon wrote, “I drew … a small grouse to be put on a bank-note belonging to the state of New Jersey.” It’s believed that this was his first engraved bird illustration, but no one was able to find any evidence of its existence—until 2010, when historians Robert M. Peck and Eric P. Newman found the sample sheets the engraver had produced with stock images for the currency. Among the George Washingtons and bald eagles was a little heath hen. Peck told NPR, "A little scurrying grouse rushing into a bed of grass is not the kind of confident image that a bank president wants to convey,” so a bald eagle probably replaced it on the currency.

Similarly, heath hens went extinct in 1932, but some researchers have proposed bringing them back.

10. John James Audubon had nothing to do with the Audubon Society.

Jays from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon published The Birds of America and established himself as America’s premier naturalist, he bought land and a mansion in rural upper Manhattan in New York City. Audubon died there in 1851, but his wife, Lucy, continued to live in the estate later known as Audubon Park. In 1857, businessman George Blake Grinnell and his family moved to Audubon Park, and Lucy became a teacher for his son, 7-year-old George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell later became a respected naturalist, editor-in-chief of outdoors magazine Forest and Stream, and an advocate for conservation.

In 1886, he founded the Audubon Society and the next year The Audubon Magazine, inspired by his childhood classes with Lucy, whom he remembered as a “beautiful, white-haired old lady with extraordinary poise and dignity; most kindly and patient and affectionate, but a strict disciplinarian of whom all the children stood in awe.” He also cofounded the conservation-minded Boone and Crockett Club with Theodore Roosevelt. But by 1889, the pressures of running multiple journals and societies proved too much, and the Audubon Society folded.

11. Two women, inspired by fashionable hats, revived the Audubon Society.

In 1896, Boston socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin Minna B. Hall were horrified after reading an account of the plume-hunting industry—a trade that killed millions of wild birds to supply feathers for millinery. They resolved to stop their fellow fashionistas from wearing wild feathers. The two founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society and sent a letter to Forest and Stream to ask people to take a pledge “not to purchase or encourage the use of feathers of wild birds for ornamentation.” More regional Audubon Societies sprang up around the country, and in 1940 they combined to form the National Audubon Society. Today the organization focuses on science-based conservation and education to protect birds, continuing John James Audubon’s legacy into the 21st century.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

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