Accidental wealth always seems to happen to someone else. That someone else is granted Lady Luck's greatest blessing – they happened to be there at the right time when a valuable object came into easy purview.
This is an area where apocryphal stories abound: 10 year-old valid lottery tickets found in clothes about to be sent to the poor; that interesting painting Aunt Mavis picked up on a trip to Paris in the 1930s; Granny's Palm Beach bungalow with views to blue infinity purchased in the 1950s for a song; that piece of corner crockery with Ming dynasty pedigree.
Experts say that serendipity strikes less and less these days. People are more mindful of potential wealth and they know a Picasso or a Nolan when they see one. But accidents still happen.
The most recent was the well-publicised 17th century Chinese libation cup carved from Rhino horn which was picked up at a Melbourne op shop for $4. Sothebys Australia sold it recently for $75,000.
Even this doesn't quite equal what happened to a New York family who bought a ceramic bowl for $US3 at a local garage sale in 2007. It turned out be 1000 years old from the "Northern Song" dynasty. In March this year, London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi paid $2.225 million for it.
John Keats, senior executive officer at Sothebys Australia, gives the recent example of a family proffering a painting which was thought to be “19th century Australian school”. Unbeknown to the family, it was a work by noted Austrian-Australian artist Eugene von Guérard.
Mount Tamobo from the Omeo Station, painted in 1862, was recorded as “location unknown” before it was discovered. It fetched a very healthy $66,000 when sold in August 2011.
Collection experts note that it's the professionals, in the game for years, who tend to get the breaks. But even in the highly studied coin and philately arena, fortune can smile on the clueless amateur.
Recently a British man tried to sell a 1914 Australian 1d red with sideways watermark on ebay for £0.99. Having been told this variety does not exist and fearing that that he might be selling a dud, he withdrew the stamp from sale and sought further advice about its authenticity.
That particular Penny Red is now expected to exceed $100,000 even thought there are billions of 'Penny Reds' bearing George V's countenance.
“You used to be able to send a letter anywhere in the empire for a penny,” says David Wood, a stamp expert and director with Phoenix Auctions in Melbourne who will conduct the sale in October.
“While the basic stamp is very common they are well studied because they exist with rare colours, printing flaws and watermark varieties,” he says. “But nowhere has one ever been found with a sideways watermark. As little as one sheet of 240 stamps may have been printed sideways by mistake.”
This begs the question. If there's one with a sideways watermark, there may be others. Mr Wood says it's not impossible but given that only 1-2 per cent of stamps survive, it's highly unlikely that any more will be discovered.
Coinworks in Melbourne is now negotiating the sale of the very first Commonwealth banknote issued in 1913. It is a 10 shillings banknote, marked serial number M000001. It surfaced in the late 1990s when a family handling a deceased estate found it slotted inside an old book.
“The No.1 banknote is probably the greatest find of its kind ever in Australia,” says Coinworks managing director Belinda Downie. Estimated value today? About $3 million.
Like the sideways watermarked stamps one has to ask – is there a number M000002 or even in an M000003 in existence?
While the property market has teetered over the years, some areas have shown little sign of long-term fatigue. Sydney's salubrious eastern suburbs has more than its fair share of bricks and mortar motzas. Ric Serrao, director of Raine & Horne in Double Bay cites several in harbourside Vaucluse. There's 19 Olphert Avenue, bought it in 1969 for $45,000 which Serrao recently sold for $2.126 million. Not far away at 27 Davies Avenue is a house bought in 1986 for $63,000, which was also recently sold by Raine & Horne for $1.875 million.
“The vendor of 19 Olphert Avenue told me that his grandfather owned 33 Coolong Road in Vaucluse – he bought it in the 1920s for a couple of thousand pounds. It was first sold in 1972 for $330,000 and in 2005 for $14.75 million. Recently it was sold again for $18 million,” Mr Serrao says.
Last but not least, there is the fabled lost lottery ticket. Tattsersalls spokeswoman Elissa Lewis says untold riches have been found in people's underwear, under a favourite doily, in the vacuum cleaner and in fridges.
To date, the largest “late payment” of a lottery ticket was purchased in Nundah newsagency in Brisbane. Golden Casket paid out $23.2 million to a Queensland player who lost his ticket almost 2� years after the September 2004 draw.
There's still time to look. In Queensland, winners have up to seven years to claim their prize. In Victoria, Tatts prizes never expire and in NSW any prize won on or before November 30 2010 must be claimed before December 1, 2016. After that, winners will have six years to claim their prize.
In NSW, there's an unpaid Saturday Lotto Draw from December 31 2010 worth $1.63 million. There's another Monday Lotto Draw from January 23 2012 still waiting to pay out just over $2 million.
Ms Lewis says winners all react differently, but perhaps her favourite reaction came from a NSW South Coast grandmother who claimed a four-year-old $2 million Powerball prize in 2008.
“There's nothing I need,” she reportedly said after winning. “When you get to my age, you're trying to give things away.
“We will use the money to help the family down the track, but they don't know that we've won. They'll find out when we leave this world.”