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.

The Mona Lisa Does Not Actually Cause the ‘Mona Lisa Effect’

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? By a certain Leonardo da Vinci painting, perhaps? Scientists call it the Mona Lisa effect: the sense that the eyes of a figure in a painting or photograph are following you as you move around the room. But according to a new study in the journal i-Perception, the eyes in the Mona Lisa painting don’t actually fit the criteria.

The Mona Lisa effect is real—scholars have documented the phenomenon for nearly 2000 years. The effect doesn’t just depend on the direction of the painted figure’s gaze. The figure’s head position in the painting and the slant of the picture itself create specific geometric conditions in space, distorting the viewer’s perception of the painted person’s stare. The sensation can occur no matter where the viewer is in relation to the portrait.

Until now, according to researchers at Bielefeld University in Germany, no one had tested the effect on the Mona Lisa itself. Gernot Horstmann and Sebastian Loth, members of the university’s Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology, designed a study in which 24 participants viewed 15 different sections of the Mona Lisa painting on a monitor. A simple ruler was placed in front of the monitor, and each viewer marked the spot where they thought the gaze landed on the ruler, which indicated its angle.

An angle of zero meant a straight-at-the-viewer look. A slightly sideward gaze toward the viewer’s ear, corresponding to a 5-degree angle, would still prompt the sense of being watched. "But as the angle increases, you would not have the impression of being looked at,” Horstmann said in a statement.

After analyzing about 2000 assessments from participants, the researchers found that viewers felt the gaze of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece to be at an angle of 15.4 degrees—looking off to their right-hand side, rather than directly at them.

“It is clear that the term Mona Lisa effect is nothing but a misnomer,” Horstmann said. But even though this particular phenomenon has been demystified, people's obsession with the painting will surely continue.

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

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