As Emil Knodell was loading his newly purchased dresser onto his truck, it began clinking and clattering like a slot machine. “It sounded like a metallic waterfall,” he told NBC News in May 2015. “It was like the Hardy Boys. Jackpot!” Indeed, he had bought the antique for less than $100, but he was about to discover that its contents are absolutely staggering.
Emil Knodell, 67, a retired marketing director who lives in Bellville, Texas, bought the dresser at a Premier Estate Sales Network event in Missouri City. “I always come to a sale with an open mind because you never know,” Knodell told Click 2 Houston. “It’s always good to come at the half-price time because then the big fun starts.”
The purpose of an estate sale is to rapidly liquidate a household’s assets and materials, usually after a death. And since the emphasis is on speed and efficiency, items are sometimes overlooked or significantly undervalued. Because of this, bargains are not uncommon at such sales – but phenomenal finds are rare.
Nevertheless – while professional estate sales companies usually know their stuff – entrepreneurs and antique collectors regularly scour estate sales for hidden treasure. This is especially so since, after all, the thrill of the chase is often just as rich as the rewards.
However, for real treasure, you might have more luck at an unassuming yard sale, where valuable items are sometimes wrongly assumed to be junk. For example, in 2007 one New York household sold a Ming dynasty vase at a yard sale for just $3. The family who bought it then sold it on for $2.2 million.
Of course, this raises an ethical quandary. Possession is, so the saying goes, nine-tenths of the law. But if you buy an item for peanuts and later discover that it is worth much, much more, do you have a moral responsibility to inform the seller? Do you keep the item or return it? Or do you quietly sell it and pocket the money?
The antique dresser that had caught Knodell’s eye was said to date to around 1890 while featuring three drawers and a solid marble top. He therefore thought it might be a good addition to his dining room, and he got it for an impressively low price. In fact, the dresser had already been discounted twice. On the first day of the sale, it was fully priced at $300. On the second day, it was $225. And on the third, the price tag was $150. After that, Knodell made an undisclosed offer somewhere below the figure of $100.
Clearly, Premier Estates Sales was entirely unaware of what was inside the dresser. After purchasing the furniture item, Knodell asked Jeff Allen, a staff member from the estate sale firm, to help him load it onto his truck.
“He asked for help loading it,” Allen told ABC News. “As soon as we laid it down, it started making all this racket on the inside. Obviously we were very intrigued with what was happening with the dresser.” Knodell and Allen then set the item upright, and upon examining it more closely, they made an amazing discovery.
“When you look at the front of it, it looks like it has three obvious drawers with molding on the base,” Knodell told ABC News. “But the bottom has a secret drawer that opens up.” The secret drawer had, it seems, escaped the attention of everyone, including the seller, the buyer and Premier Estate Sales.
Sliding open the secret drawer, Knodell and Allen finally set eyes on the treasure that had lain hidden inside. “It was a real adrenaline rush,” Allen told ABC news. “Both of us were in shock for a second.” After all, it’s not every day that you find a secret treasure trove.
The haul included emeralds, diamonds, rings, bracelets, antique coins, foreign currency, military dog tags, Civil War medals and a lock of hair. In fact, the entire drawer was filled to the brim with intriguing historical trinkets. Which begged the question, how many generations had they been passed through?
It was impossible to know for sure, but since the dresser itself appeared to date from the late 19th century, there was a fair chance that some of the items are at least a hundred years old. Indeed, the Civil War memorabilia hinted that some of the relics might be of considerable value to collectors.
And, in fact, Allen was able to put a professional estimate on their value. According to him, the assorted jewelry and memorabilia were worth approximately $15,000. So if Knodell bought the dresser for around $100, his profit would be around 150 times what he had paid for it. Not bad for a day’s work.
However, there was a small problem. These items had not been priced into the sale, and yet they now belonged to Knodell. Technically, then, he could walk away with his pockets full and a clear conscience. He had not broken the law, after all. That said, what is lawful is not necessarily the same as what is moral or ethical.
Perhaps many people would be quite comfortable with claiming the stash as their own. “Finders, keepers” and all that – and for most people, $15,000 is a tidy sum of cash. But by the same token, taking these items could be construed as being extremely dishonest. And, indeed, selling them on just didn’t sit right with Knodell.
“I bought the chest [of] drawers. I didn’t buy those things,” he told ABC News. “If I kept them, I would never feel right about it. There would be a cloud over the whole thing. It’s a feeling more than anything else.”
“I’m an old ex-Marine, and I try to do the right thing,” he continued. “Jeff also, the man in charge, his immediate reaction was, ‘Let’s call the owner.’ There was never a question of anyone keeping it. It was, ‘This is fantastic. Let’s call the owner and get the stuff back to them.’”
What’s more, the executor, it turned out, is the son of the deceased, and he told Allen that he remembers seeing the dresser as a child in his grandparents’ house in Michigan. And, of course, he had not known that it contained a hidden compartment filled with treasures and mementos.
In the end, then, Knodell made arrangements to return the items. So, although he didn’t bag any treasure that day, he gets to sleep at night knowing that he did the right thing. And that, needless to say, is priceless.