I hope you will enjoy reading this Chapter from my newest publication, the Emperor & the Motorcycle Mechanic-Memoir of an Art Dealer, available in Kindle from Amazon.com $9.99 The volume has 85 Chapters, 67 Color Photos, 260 Pages.
The Case of the Missing Lock Box
A lawyer representing a major East Coast bank called me to retain my services in performing a forensic appraisal. A customer was suing the bank for $2,000,000 for the loss of the contents of his lockbox. Not only had the contents of the lockbox mysteriously disappeared, but also the lockbox itself had gone missing! The client alleged that the contents of the box were priceless jadeite jewelry smuggled out of China during the communist revolution of 1949. The story provided that the jadeite jewelry was given by a Nationalist general in exchange for a boat with which to escape to Taiwan. The customer’s father brought the jewelry and a small sculpture along when he immigrated to the United States. The bank’s lawyer was skeptical about an appraisal the customer had obtained from a well-known East Coast Oriental art dealer.
“How can someone appraise something that they have never seen and of which there are no photographs?” he asked.
“Send me a copy of the customer’s appraisal and let me look it over,” I replied.
The next day the paperwork arrived. It was apparent that the appraiser had extrapolated fair market values from the verbal description of the plaintiff by finding comparable jewelry sold at auction. I explained to the lawyer that any appraisal using a solely verbal description could not be relied upon—especially when it came to jadeite jewelry.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t appraise it, especially when it comes to jadeite jewelry. A slight nuance in color will increase the value of a jadeite piece many times.” I told him. “There are other issues here. How did the pieces enter the United States? Were the goods declared and duties paid? Are there any appraisals previously in writing by a competent appraiser who has actually seen the goods?”
Then I mapped out a scenario of what probably happened. The customer was known to be a gambler and loan shark in the East Coast Chinese community. He had lost heavily and owed out IOUs to the kind of people who can shorten your life span considerably. The customer’s father had hidden the jewelry under his bed for decades. When the old man was preparing to visit Mainland China, the son urged his father to hand over the jewelry to him to lock up in the bank safe. The customer entered the safe box room with a bank teller who inserted her key into the lock box. Then she left for a moment to assist another customer. Seeing his opportunity, the customer put the jewelry into the lock box, and put the box into his backpack. He then closed the door to his box and turned his key to lock it and removed the key. The bank teller came back into the room and turned her key to lock the box and then they both left.
Six months later, the customer returned, inserted his key and opened the door to find the box and its contents missing. In the meantime he had sold the jewelry to pay off his gambling debts and keep his head intact. To save face with the old man, the young man blamed the bank and filed a lawsuit seeking reimbursement for his “loss.” The bank offered to settle, but the young man was adamant. The judge ruled in favor of the bank. Then, since the father had given the jewelry to the son, there was a taxable gift created. The judge announced that he was obliged to report that fact to the Internal Revenue Service. The son would owe taxes on the $2,000,000 value he had claimed under sworn oath that the jewelry was worth.