Antiques Roadshow, the most popular program on PBS, begins its fifth season on television this month. In each episode, people bring old stuff from their homes to be appraised by antiques and collectibles experts—sometimes revealing that an ugly trinket is worth a truckload of money. What school employees wouldn’t love to exchange storeroom junk for a similar windfall— particularly in January, when the fiscal year at many schools is half over, and the pressure’s on to make the budget last until June? In recent years, this buried-treasure fantasy has actually come true for a handful of schools. Officials at the following facilities found rare pieces of art behind bookshelves and boilers-and on the walls, where they’d been hanging for years in plain view.
Chicago Public Schools
Found: 1,400 original works of art, including Work Projects Administration murals, American impressionist paintings, contemporary art, portraits, and sculptures.
When: From 1998 to 2000, during a massive, two-year inventory of art in the Chicago district’s 566 buildings.
Hiding Spots: Here, there, and everywhere. Three Salvador Dali works were stacked on a closet floor. A $100,000 E. Martin Hennings painting, rescued from the garbage by a school engineer, hung in a boiler room. A WPA mural at one school had been employed as a message board; another was a casualty of lunch-time food fights.
Origin: Officials say the district accumulated the art over time. For example, after the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, General Motors Corp. donated to the city’s schools 40 murals it had commissioned for the event. Many surplus WPA works also ended up there, and several schools either purchased or had original paintings of their namesakes donated.
Value: $20 million.
Windfall: $0. The school district is keeping the art collection—a costly move, as it’s had to establish a special fund to insure and restore the paintings. Some refurbished pieces have been returned to the schools, and others have joined a traveling exhibition passing through city schools. Plans have been made to incorporate the works into curricula and launch an online display.
Lake Michigan Academy, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Found: An early striking of Christian Gobrecht’s U.S. silver dollar minted in the 1850s but never circulated—one of three known coins of its type.
When: August 2000.
Hiding Spot: In a coin collection donated to the school’s capital campaign fund.
Origin: Unaware of its extreme value, Grand Rapids philanthropist Peter Cook gave the coin collection—which he had received 20 years earlier as payment on a debt and then relegated to his basement—to the academy this summer. When school treasurer and numismatist Pat Mullen spotted the Gobrecht, he took it to experts. The coin has since been traced to the 20th-century collection of Egypt’s King Farouk I.
Value: $98,800 at auction.
Windfall: Approximately $75,000 after paying capital gains taxes and the auction house’s commission. Lake Michigan has put the proceeds toward the construction of a new school building.
Oak Park and River Forest High School, Oak Park, Illinois
Found: Twenty paintings by regional artists, including Dale Bessire and Ada Walter Shulz.
When: Fall 1998; May 2000.
Hiding Spots: On the walls. Don Vogel, the school’s division head for information systems and instruction technology, was curious about the landscape hanging over his desk and did some research. He discovered that it, and a whole slew of other paintings on the walls of various school administrative offices, were museum-quality. In May, the school found two more paintings behind a bookcase.
Origin: School officials believe village residents purchased the paintings at shows held at Marshall Field’s stores in Chicago in the 1920s and ‘30s and then donated the art to public schools and libraries.
Value: $327,150 at auction.
Windfall: $287,212. The school has sold all but the last two canvases to raise money for five annual student scholarships in the arts. The last two paintings have been restored and added to the school’s permanent collection.
West Seattle High School, West Seattle, Washington
Found: “Landing, Barter, and Logging,” a three-panel mural—each five- foot-by-nine-foot section framed separately—by Russian immigrant Jacob Elshin.
When: May 2000.
Hiding Spot: Behind a large cabinet in the art classroom. During a pre- renovation inventory, district archivist Eleanor Toews discovered the panels where they had sat since at least 1990, unbeknownst to everyone but an art teacher—who didn’t know they were “lost.”
Origin: The WPA commissioned the mural in the 1930s, but it was removed from its spot above the school’s main entrance during remodeling in 1954.
Windfall: $0. The school has decided to restore and keep the mural, which will be rehung at West Seattle once school renovations are completed in 2002.