Friday, April 26, 2013

I'm shocked the world has totally ignored last week's episode of Treasure Detectives. It was absolutely a game-changer, a milestone, a landmark for fans of the "How Much Is This Shit I Got From Grandma Worth?" genre. My memory is a bit hazy and the show is too dull to actually sit through so I could be horribly wrong, but this is what pieced together from the dribs and drabs I heard while actually doing something fun.

Some guy buys a painting on eBay for $100. The painting literally could not be more repulsive if Sarah Palin was clog-dancing in the middle. It's a haphazard amalgam that uses about eighty more colors than anyone with visual acuity would employ, and at its center is a giant red splotch. The seller knows the painting is hideous, and he couldn't be more apologetic. He bills it as nothing more than "interesting" and "one of a kind" and "since it's on canvas, maybe it can soak up spills."

The buyer, though, is more ambitious. Though he doesn't seem to have any credentials that establish him as smarter than a manatee, he's convinced it's by Willem de Kooning. Totally sure. That piece of crap is a de Kooning. We gasp: is it delusion? Chutzpah? Just plain nuts? We are literally inches away from hearing our grandpa swear that the ghost of Hitler has made his testicles sag.

For some reason Curtis Dowling, the host, takes the man seriously. Dowling shares the painting with his two helpful sidekicks. One is a pretty young woman who looks like she's just hanging around to take drink orders, and the other's a guy who looks like he cut his hair with a weedwhacker. He takes one look at the painting and immediately declares, "I don't know nothing 'bout this new-fangled art."

We're left wondering if non-helpful sidekicks could be worse. Maybe they try to jam a angry forest dwellers in your pocket while yelling, "Who's got the woodchuck?"

The three talk about how great it would be to prove the picture is authentic. The argument is roughly as productive as your brother-in-law saying you could buy and sell Bill Gates if you could just teach algae to shit petroleum. At no point does anyone acknowledge the obvious. The picture is crap. It's like trying to prove a cow is a Tiffany lamp while it's spraying cream at your face. Instead, Dowling decides to drag the wreck to somebody with a brain.

Now, it's easy to authenticate stuff. You really only need one expert. Maybe you could double-check with forensic analysis. But Dowling can't just bring the object straight to these people, because what would he do for the remaining 59 minutes -- sing old sea shanties? Instead he shows the object to three people of increasing intelligence: first a Complete Idiot, then Mr. Vaguely Knowledgeable, then an Actual Expert.

Dowling's visit to CI dwells on the fact that anything is possible. "De Kooning used paint," he notes, and this is clearly paint, so it could be a de Kooning, right?"

"Yes, that's possible," CI observes. "They both certainly use paint."

"So, in your professional opinion, do you think this is actually a de Kooning?"

"I don't know," the person says. "After all, I'm just the bellboy at your hotel."

The show rigorously adheres to the pattern. Do you think this could be Hitler's ottoman? Yes, it's definitely Hitler's ottoman. Now read me a story, Daddy. This looks like a Faberge egg. Could it be a Faberge egg? I don't know. So you wanted a double cheese and fries?

Oddly, the situation doesn't get resolved, so it's time to drag in the fair-to-middling guns: Mr. Vaguely Knowledgeable. We haven't totally abandoned all stupidity: it's more like the Double Jeopardy round.

"So, do you think this is a de Kooning?" Dowling asks.

"Well, there's one thing I notice right off the bat. De Kooning always signed his work, and this work isn't signed."

"But de Kooning often drank. Is it possible he got drunk and forgot to sign the picture?"

"Yes, that's possible. But then why wouldn't there be a record of this painting anywhere?"

"While de Kooning was drunk, is it possible that a monkey broke into his studio and mistook this painting for a tomato? And then just left it on the street?"

"Sure, I guess it's possible. Monkeys get crazy. But, you know, there's really no explanation for the fact the painting is a total pile of shit."

"Yes, yes, clearly," Dowling admits. "But de Kooning is famous for breaking all the rules. Maybe with this work he broke all the rules about competent painting. Maybe he said to himself, 'I'm tired of making paintings that are attractive, and show talent!' Maybe this painting is the ultimate act of Abstract Expressionism: a work expressly designed to look like a monkey has crapped out a beet onto canvas."

Mr. VK caves here. "Sure!" he barks. "Yes, it could be real! It could be an actual de Kooning, painted while he was drunk as an avant-garde act against good painting and stolen by a beet-shitting monkey! NOW WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GO AWAY?"

Dowling reacts to this admission with mixed feelings. "That is great news," he says, "but we have to be 100% sure. Let's take it to an expert."

That's why at 8:47 on Monday nights if you open your window and listen closely you can hear a dozen of your neighbors yelling, "DUH, YA THINK?"

Thankfully, the expert doesn't tolerate Dowling's idiocy. He looks at the work, maybe examines the paint through a microscope. He shoots Dowling the glance Stephen J. Hawking would give Richard Simmons. "You know the de Kooning has never been painted," he says icily, "that doesn't have a giant pair of swirly purple boobs."

"That's true," Dowling stutters, "but maybe he was drunk and a monkey took it before -- "

"This isn't a de Kooning," the expert snaps. "This is what's known among professionals as 'Some piece of shit an idiot bought on eBay.'"

It's now 8:59, so Dowling has to render his final decision. We hear the owner reiterate the high stakes once and for all: "This painting has to be a real de Kooning," he insists. "Otherwise it'll be one more piece of evidence that I have no business being a fine art dealer."

Naturally this evokes empathy on my part. I mean, I guess I shouldn't hire myself out as a Bovine Dessication Technician just because I eat beef jerky four hours a day.

Dowling glances with concern at the owner. "This painting is " -- eighteen commercials, four centered around a female bear quizzing her hubby about his usage of toilet paper -- "not a de Kooning."

The owner acts vaguely piqued for a nanosecond before he pipes up with the silver lining. "Maybe it's not a de Kooning, but it's famous now that it's been on TV so it's definitely valuable!"

And scene. The guy clearly wins. He probably knew it wasn't a de Kooning but decided that showing it to half a million people couldn't do any harm. We turn off the TV convinced we'll see this painting again, maybe when CNBC debuts Is This That Thing Those Idiots Were Talking About? in the fall of 2015.

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