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A genuine Whistler was tossed into a donation box. A Yale student bought it for $4 in Williamsburg.
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A genuine Whistler was tossed into a donation box. A Yale student bought it for $4 in Williamsburg.

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There’s no gentle way to say this: One of you tossed out a Whistler.

Maybe you were cleaning out your attic? Clearing out an estate? Redecorating, perhaps, and lugging cast-offs to the thrift store?

Whatever was happening, you didn’t recognize what you had in your hands. That black and white sketch of a dark-haired woman — 5-by-7 inches or so in a nothing-special frame — was a for-real piece of work by one of the great masters.

And in a classic kick-yourself tale, a college student paid four bucks for it at the ReStore on Jamestown Road.

Her name is Molly Martien and art is her thing — probably the only reason she recognized the genuine article while rummaging through a dusty bin of frames and kitschy prints last year.

Martien, 28, isn’t your average bargain hunter. She’s earned her appraiser’s certificate for fine and decorative arts — which means a bit of a bummer for us: She’s not allowed to tell how much money she made from her discovery.

Ethically, she can only reveal that she sold it on eBay to a doctor in Texas, who paid somewhere between $250 and $2,500.

“I wish I could be more specific, but I just can’t,” she said, adding that she’ll be looking for a job soon in her field, where principles and privacy are expected.

So why share any of this with us now?

Maybe it’s the recent headlines about a $35 yard sale bowl selling at Sotheby’s for more than $700,000. That yard sale was near New Haven, Connecticut, where Martien is studying at Yale University for her second master of arts degree.

And while her find didn’t fetch the kind of fortune that the ancient Chinese bowl did, she was grateful for what she got.

“I’m a broke grad student and I really needed money,” she said. “And for a while, I guess, I didn’t want to tell anyone about the Whistler because I was afraid that the person who had accidentally thrown it out would want it back, or the money anyway — and that was used up fast, for books and stuff like that.”

No, said Jonathan Martinez, the manager who answered a call to the ReStore last week. Finder’s keepers — although we could practically hear a forehead smack over the phone, followed by a soft but definite “oh geez.”

As the middleman, Martinez has regrets as well. Staff at the ReStore, charged with raising as much dough as possible for Habitat for Humanity, try to spot gems as they come in and price them accordingly.

“There are times when we catch it and are able to get a good value for it, and other times something slips through the cracks,” Martinez said. “And then it’s like, ‘ah, we missed it’ but it’s also awesome that somebody got a treasure. It’s a two-edged sword, and that’s the beauty of this place.”

Martien stumbled upon the Whistler in January of last year when she was home for Christmas break.

She didn’t know much about James Abbott McNeill Whistler, a 19th-century American most famous for his iconic “Whistler’s Mother,” one of just a handful of paintings that’s recognized by just about everyone.

But Whistler was also talented at etching, an early method for making prints. Basically, the artist etches the original on a metal plate, which is used to make a limited number of impressions.

The one Martien found is among 74 known impressions of “Fumette,” a portrait etched by Whistler in 1859 of a woman who was his mistress for a while in Paris. Some of the other “Fumette” impressions are hanging in museums.

All Martien knew at the time was what her gut was telling her. She’d been rifling through the bin for about 15 minutes, searching for a decent frame, when “Fumette” stopped her in her tracks.

“Objects like that, created by a master, they have an aura,” she said. “It’s like they’re alive. The craftsmanship and detail. I felt it calling. Oh man, I’m looking at something real.”

She “spent, like, an hour dazed, staring at it in the store, telling myself this has to be just a reproduction,” — a mass-produced, modern-day print of old artwork.

Glancing around, she eventually pried open the frame — just enough — to find another frame inside. Inside that: symbols she recognized as marks from an auction somewhere in the past.

“And the paper, it was so-o-o thin. I got chills.”

At the counter, she plopped down $4, heart pounding, bouncing silently between “no way” and “holy crap.”


Alice Krebs, Martien’s mother, says she met her daughter afterward for lunch.

“She came in with this ratty bag, talking in a low voice, like we were doing some kind of drug deal,” Krebs said.

At home, Martien dove into research that convinced her the Whistler was bona fide. Back in New Haven, she took it to an expert who confirmed its authenticity and tried to sell it for her at auction with a “high reserve.”

When no one bit, she considered keeping it for herself:

“But it needed to be conserved — there was a slight stain, like maybe water damage — and I couldn’t afford to give it what it deserved. Besides, it should be displayed somewhere, by someone who would really love it. So, I decided to just put it on eBay and see what happened.”

When the Texas doctor, a collector, offered to buy and clean the etching, she wrapped it up, went to the post office and sprang for $100 worth of insurance.

“I was thinking, ‘Am I crazy? Putting a Whistler in the U.S. mail?’”

When it arrived safely, and the buyer was pleased with his purchase, “I was so relieved,” Martien said. Safeguarding a masterpiece is a big responsibility.

A “Fumette” with similar wear and tear sold at Christie’s in 2007 for $3,000. A larger Whistler etching, called “The Palaces,” was valued at $20,000 to $30,000 by experts on “Antiques Roadshow” in 2015. His one-of-a-kind paintings sell for millions.

“I wonder if I could have sold it for more?” Martien fretted.

The thought was quickly brushed aside. Her $4 investment paid off nicely, even at the lower end of the price range she shared. And for a month or so, she owned an actual Whistler, which is now receiving the proper care and respect.

Imagine being the person who reads this story and realizes what they tossed out.

“They probably never looked inside the frame,” Martien said. “I feel kind of bad for them!”

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