HOUSTON -- Around the antique shops along lower Westheimer, a gentleman named Peter Schofield hunts for treasure.
“Sometimes I’m lucky and sometimes I’m not,” he said in his distinctly British accent, peering into the window of a building cluttered with old furniture.
Amid the funky and junky stuff scattered about the stores, Schofield searches not for bargains, but for bonanzas.
“One never knows,” he said.
But Schofield does know his art and he does know his history. So one day in 2012 when he wandered into one of the shops he regularly patrols, he knew he’d hit the jackpot.
Just as lottery players fantasize about buying a winning ticket, a good many antique collectors long to discover a lost work of valuable art gathering dust in a forgotten corner of an obscure shop. Like the Maltese falcon chased in the old movie, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Schofield has enjoyed his share of luck on these shopping expeditions. He tells a story about buying a damaged old painting for $1,000, spending $6,000 restoring it, then selling it for $140,000.
Now he’s about to collect the reward from the most lucrative treasure hunt of his life, when an auction house sells some rare arts works he found in 2012. On the floor of a little shop just off Westheimer Schofield discovered 17 old lithographs of drawings, undistinguished but for a unique mark: a butterfly, the little-known signature of one of the most prominent artists in American history.
“Always, Whistler, look for the butterfly.” Schofield said, pointing to the telltale clue that identified the lithographs as the work of James McNeil Whistler.
Arguably the most significant American impressionist, Whistler is best known for a painting entitled “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” the iconic work most people call “Whistler’s Mother.” But he also produced more than 150 lithographs of etchings, a fact Schofield knew when he saw those works lying amid the antiques on lower Westheimer.
Schofield bought the entire collection for $60. The owner of the antique store, which has since gone out of business, never knew what he had until Schofield told him.
“He was flabbergasted,” Schofield remembered. “He said, “Most people in Houston looked at them and thought they were very boring. They weren’t interested. And I couldn’t get five dollars each for them.’”
Sotheby’s, the famed auction house, has since offered written estimates suggesting the lithographs are worth up to $30,000 each. Schofield expects the entire collection to fetch more than $250,000.
Sadly, a half-dozen lithographs in the same batch had been chewed up by cockroaches. The destroyed works of art were worth about $300,000, Schofield said.
“Gourmet roaches,” he jokes.
So how did those valuable works of art end up collecting dust and roach bites in a shop on lower Westheimer? Schofield believes a bank obtained them during a foreclosure proceeding, then somehow unloaded them without knowing their value.
Antique dealers say that’s a common scenario. Sometimes when wealthy people die, their heirs sell valuable collectibles for bargain prices and never realize they’re dumping treasures onto the market.
“Sometimes we get lax and lazy and it bypasses us,” said Becky Pieniadz, the owner of B.J. Oldies Antique Store on Westheimer. “And then, somebody else has reaped the benefits of it. That’s okay. That’s what people come in here for.”
That’s what keeps Schofield coming back. Just a few days ago, he said, he bought a collection of Emile Zola books for $150. He figures he can sell them for more than $3,000.
“All these little shops from time to time produce very good results,” he said.