Rare Robert E. Lee Photo Found at Goodwill Is Auctioned

Some go to Goodwill for jeans, furniture, maybe even some good DVDs if they’re lucky. But when Richard Schaffer of Harpers Ferry, W.V., perused Goodwill he stumbled across a small photograph of Robert E. Lee that looked old enough to be real.

He eventually paid $23,000 for it.

“It looked like s*** honestly and that’s what appealed to me,” said Schaffer.

That was enough to make Schaffer, 45, take a second look. When the photograph first posted on Goodwill’s online site, shopgoodwill.com, it was only $4.

But then something happened. Suzanne Kay-Pittman, spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, said that the price started shooting up.

“In 18 hours, it was above $6,700,” Kay-Pittman said.

Goodwill took the picture offline and to Larry Hicklen who runs several Civil War antique shops near Stone River battlefield. He dated it circa 1865-1870. He described it as a  tin type photograph, probably not an original, but maybe a copy of original. He said that the pose had not been seen before but noted that the image was very similar to the famous “floppy tie” Civil War portrait. This photograph, however, had a slightly different facial expression and faces a different direction.

Good enough for Goodwill, the company reposted the picture on August 31. Several days, 131 bids, and over 40,000 page views later, Schaffer finally acquired the rare piece.

Schaffer, a veteran antique collector, has still not laid eyes on the actual photograph and will not until Kay-Pittman hand-delivers it to him Monday at his Harpers Ferry restaurant, Secret Six Tavern. Then he will have it examined by his own private firm in Washington, D.C.

There are risks. The picture could end up being an absolute fake and be worth less than $1,000. Schaffer says that $23,000 isn’t all that much in the antique world and is just part of the gamble.

“You may win or you may lose,” said Schaffer. “It’s like the stock market.”

But if he wins, he would win big. He estimates that if the picture really is as rare as he believes, it could easily be worth six figures.

And if he loses, it will have just been an auction casualty. He says that Goodwill seems willing to work with him if the picture turns out to be a fake. Even if his money is not returned, Schaffer takes comfort in knowing that his money is going to a good place.

“It’s a very important charitable organization, truly one of the finest nonprofits in the U.S.,” said Schaffer.

Kay-Pittman notes that, through the sale of this one item, Goodwill will be able to train 69 people to go out and get jobs.