Striking Gold In Online Auctions

It’s a favourite fantasy of those who buy stuff through garage sales, school fairs and on Trade Me: that we’ll one day stumble upon a hidden treasure that will make us rich (or at least famous).

“Madam, that is indeed a Picasso long thought lost. It is difficult to assign an exact value until the assessors have examined it closely  — but the most recent Picasso sale was of his 1969 “Buste D’Homme”, sold at Sotheby’s last week for $10.4 million. So perhaps we should move this painting out of your spare bedroom and give it a slightly more secure home.”

Oh yes, we can dream. And TV series such as Antiques Roadshow encourage our imagination in such directions. But does it ever happen, especially on online auction sites?

Yes, it does. Film collectors are buzzing about the recent discovery on eBay of a lost Charlie Chaplin film, purchased as part of a collection of nitrate film bought for US$5.

Morale Park from Henham, Essex, purchased the can of film simply because he liked the look of it. He was amazed to discover its fragile contents: a previously unknown seven-minute film Chaplin film called Zepped.

The film features footage of Zeppelin airships flying over England during the First World War, and out-takes from three pictures that Chaplin shot with the film company Essanay, with whom the entertainer had a contract in 1914, before falling out.

An animated scene shows Chaplin wishing he could leave America to join his British countrymen in the war, before being taken on a cloud and deposited on an English church spire.

It also shows him sending up the Zeppelin, and an animated sequence of Kaiser Wilhelm popping out of a German sausage. There is a certification from Egypt, dating the film to December 1916.

Mr Park got his neighbour John Dyer, former head of education at the British Board of Film Classification, to look at it, and they concluded the film had been put together as a piece of war propaganda.

It is not known whether Chaplin was involved in the project or whether various out-takes were spliced together without his knowledge or consent.

David Robinson, author of Chaplin: His Life and Art, believed the film could be worth anything from £3,000 to £40,000.

Mr Park and Mr Dyer are currently in California making a documentary about the find.

Could this sort of thing happen on Trade Me?

Absolutely. Probably already does, in fact. However not every lucky buyer will recognise the importance of their new purchase.  So all those potential goldmines will end up in someone else’s attic, to be stumbled upon by future treasure hunters.

Well, anyway, that’s our dream.

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