We had a chance to chance upon a puzzle the other day. We love puzzles and seek them out, so maybe it wasn’t a chance situation.
We found a box at an antique shop here in Los Angeles. It was plain on the outside, looked like it was made of oak or some sturdy wood. We don’t know our woods well but what we do know is the difference between what we would call “Oak” and “Pine.” It wasn’t Pine so, in our book, it had to be Oak.
It was exactly square and had a small hasp with a small lock but the lock had no keyhole. It apparently was keeping the box shut but there were no lines in the wood indicating that the box opened at the location of the hasp and lock.
There were seams and lines on the bottom of the box and on one side. The rest appeared to be carved or derived from one piece of wood, Oak-type wood.
We asked the dealer about it and he said he was told it was from a salvage done at some place in the Arizona desert. We asked what was in it and he said he didn’t know because he had never played with it enough to try to open it. We asked how much he wanted for it and that’s when it got interesting.
He said $250 for the box sounded about right.
We said we were thinking more about $10 bucks. We asked how he could justify $250?
He said that because it could be holding gold coins from the Old West or at least silver coins.
We shook the box but heard no rattles and certainly no clings or clangs indicating coins were within.
The box was relatively heavy, about five pounds. We figured that Oak — if it was really Oak and not just our binary classification of all woods — would not weigh five pounds by itself. That caused us to think there must be something inside with the weight of at least a pound.
Gold could weigh at least a pound, silver was less likely and lead could weigh more than a pound.
We mentioned to the bespectacled antique store owner that because neither one of us knew what was in the box — if anything — we should probably try to figure a price that includes the risk that it would contain nothing of value.
He countered that we should figure a price that includes the risk that it probably had something of tremendous value.
We asked that if he thought it had tremendous value, why would he price it at only $250? Why not $2,000?
He said he didn’t think he could sell it at $2,000 but at $250, it was priced right to match the risk.
How could we be sure that he hadn’t already opened the box and thus knew its contents.
He said he didn’t have time to do something like that, he wasn’t good at puzzles, and his store dealt mostly in furniture and artwork. This was a strange item he picked up but hadn’t “messed with.”
His store was filled with chairs of different eras, quality, fabric and evidence of use. He had beautifully framed paintings hung on the walls of his small but maneuverable space.
We offered $15.00 and hoped he would come down. He didn’t budge. He did, however, lift his glasses and wiped them with the tail of his shirt, conveniently not tucked into his jeans. He replaced his glasses and gestured to take the box back for an inspection. Still saying nothing.
“I could let it go for $200, I suppose,” he said without looking at us.
He handed the box back to us and kept his eyes down. We thought he might wipe his glasses again. But he didn’t. He was just waiting for our response.
“$200 is way out of what we would call a ballpark,” we said. “How about $30?”
He shook his head and said $200 was the best he could do. He reminded us again that it might contain gold and that he had never opened it.
“If it could contain gold, why not open it and see?” we asked.
“It would ruin it,” he said.
We were amazed he had this much time to dedicate to this philosophical negotiation. He had other customers in the shop and while they didn’t look like they needed his help, we imagined that part of being a shopkeeper was helping people find items they didn’t know they needed to buy.
“How would it ruin it?” we asked. “Right now it is just a box that could contain gold or could contain sand and rocks. But when we shake it, there are no sounds.”
“Well,” he said, finally looking at us, “it’s your choice. $200 is my last and best offer.”
We had $200 on us — we just returned from the Poker Room at the Bicycle Club and had a good day. But we didn’t want to waste it on something that could be nothing. We didn’t think there was gold in it and we couldn’t see a way to open it without destroying it. We figured we should just pass on it. It would make for an interesting story one day; maybe today.
So those were our thoughts and deeply held beliefs. We were going to pass. But what we heard us say was, “How about $100.00?”
He extended his hand, we shook it, he gave us the box and we gave him a freshly minted $100 bill. We looked at the image of Benjamin Franklin as we handed it to the antique store owner. Mr. Franklin seemed to shaking his head in disapproval or maybe it was just our hands shaking the bill.
We walked out of the store into the bright southern California sunshine and squinted. The store was apparently much darker than we thought. We looked at the box in the light, hoping to find the secret to opening it without destroying it.
Then we started thinking crazy things. Maybe there was gold in it. Opening it would answer the question but not knowing for sure had value as well.
We got on the Santa Monica bus with the box in our lap. A woman next to us asked about it.
“It is a box from an archaeological dig. I was told there might be gold in it.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” she said and reached out to feel the wood. “Is that maple?”
“Could be,” we said. “Maybe oak.”
“We’ll its very pretty. Where did you get it?”
“Right over there at that store,” we said as we turned to point out the shop but as we did we couldn’t find it. There were so many stores in the strip mall, it could have been that we lost track of it.