Found object art is worth more than the sum of its parts

It was a most-welcome sign of life returning to normal — a giant, outside flea market on a beautiful May Saturday morning. Even better, it was the day after payday, and we lucked into a parking spot close to the front.

The first row of booths at this market had long, narrow spaces that limited shoppers to entering single file. Don had wandered into a particularly slender booth filled with colorful and exotic-looking artwork and was having an animated conversation with a young man — late teens, early 20s — who I assumed was the artist. There wasn’t room for me to join, plus something rusty and strange a few vendors down caught my eye, so I headed in that direction.

Minutes later, Don was beside me, bubbling with excitement.

“Look what I got!” he said, holding up an old, wooden box, inside of which was a cool, handmade robot created from scraps of old metal and wood. Don, being a fan of all things science fiction and a lover of found-object art, was beside himself.

“It was only 20 dollars!” he said. “This might be my favorite deal ever. I almost didn’t ask the price because I was sure it would be too expensive.”

“Was that young guy the artist?” I asked.

“No,” Don said. “That was his son.”

As we continued our shopping, Don kept stopping to admire his find again and again, but eventually took it to our car for safekeeping. A few hours later, as we were headed back to the parking lot, he wanted to stop by the artist’s booth to see if the father had arrived so he could tell him how much he loved his work.

He was. And Don did.

“There should’ve been a one in front of that twenty,” the man said gruffly. “My son obviously wasn’t listening when I told him the price.”

The son, who was standing nearby, looked hugely embarrassed.

As, I imagine, did we.

It was such an awkward spot to have found ourselves in. As much as we loved the piece, there was no way we would have spent that much for its purchase. We recognized it had probably been worth more than we paid, but the artist insisted he wasn’t asking us for more. He held up his hand and said, “A deal is a deal. It was bought in good faith. This is on my son. He should’ve known better.”

In the car driving home, there was a feeling of utter deflation. Don’s excitement over his purchase had been turned inside out.

“Every time I look at this piece,” he said, “I’m going to be reminded of the conflict between that father and son.”

The next day, Don drove 40 miles back to the flea market. The son was there again, manning his dad’s booth by himself. Don pulled the robot art piece from his bag and told the son he would like to sell it back to him for $20. The same amount he had paid.

“I’m not sure how to react,” the son said. “I’ve never been in a situation like this.”

He thanked Don for “having a good soul” as they again traded money for artwork, undoing the deal.

If we had not stopped back by that booth, we never would have known about the mistake. Don would have had that quirky robot hanging with pride on his home office wall, where it would’ve had the extra shine of the bargain it had so briefly been.

I can’t help but wonder what someone else would have done if faced with this same situation. Would they have hung the artwork, regardless? Would they have gifted it to someone else or stashed it out of sight in a closet? Or handed the artist more money than they could have comfortably afforded to pay?

I’m proud of how Don handled it. I like what it says about him.

I have complained in the past about people who won’t jump into icy waters to save the freezing dog until they’re sure a camera is rolling to capture the act, so I feel like a bit of a hypocrite to be doing the writer’s version of this very same thing — except Don never would’ve told a soul about what happened if I hadn’t been along for the ride.

If I wanted to sum up all that Don is with one single act, this might be the example I would choose. This is how he behaves when no one is watching.

Even when I’m not there, taking notes.