Steven Heller | Essays

Finding Treasure

We’ve all watched scenes in movies where intrepid treasure seekers find the riches they’ve been looking for. One of the best is in The Teasure of the Sierra Madre when old-timer Howard (played by Walter Houston) finds the gold that he and his fellow prospectors, Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt, are standing upon. “You two are so dumb,” he says manically jumping up and down, “you don’t even know the treasure that you’re standing on.” It is a moment of pure ecstasy on a par with any great discovery ever experienced. If you're a designer and collector and you’ve ever found a book, magazine, or poster that you know well, but have never seen for sale, at a store or flea market, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

The moment you see the spine, or some other recognizable feature, you know: This is it. This is the thing I’ve been looking for. This is a treasure that will satisfy, if only for the moment, my treasure hunt. Not everyone has had the experience, but many of us have, at least to some degree. It is like finding your soul mate, or meeting someone you’ve always wanted to meet. I’ve had the experience many times, and they never get tiresome. There is always a thrill to be had.

Sometimes it is a total surprise when you least expect it. Other times it is the culmination of a long hunt for a particular item, then all of a sudden, there it is right in front of your eyes, ready for the taking. I could cite many times both have happened to me. Once, I was looking for a paperback book that I had misplaced. Someone had given me the original artwork for the cover but I could not find the book itself. Then one morning I thought “wouldn’t it be nice to have that book again,” I went to a flea market in Manhattan and within minutes of my roaming around, there it was, just sitting there for $2, as though through some cosmic force it materialized. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t fathom my luck. I probably would have eventually found it, but there it was.

Another time, I was rummaging through a store in Rome and out of the corner of my eye I saw what appeared to be a familiar typeface. I pulled the book by the spine out off the shelf and lo and behold it was a volume that I had wanted for over thirty years, but it was always much too expensive whenever I saw it. Assuming the price would be prohibitive, I gently opened the front cover and gasped. Could it be? No price was listed. I asked the proprietor, certain that my hopes were about to be dashed. Waiting impatiently as he slowly turned the pages, I couldn’t control my joy when he noted it was almost $200 cheaper than I expected. Yes, I bought it.

What an incredible experience. I hope you’ve all felt it at least once.

Jobs | July 22