Getting Lucky

Greg Spears

PEOPLE TEND TO attribute their investment gains to skill and their losses to bad luck. To these two categories, I’d like to suggest a third: making a fortune—thanks to good luck. Let me give you an example.

I’m a member of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. It’s a downtown club where reporters went for a drink and a bite to eat after they filed their stories. As you might expect, business was rocky during the pandemic.

The club is decorated with front pages from historic newspapers and candid snapshots of U.S. presidents who dropped in. There’s also a large painting showing the old newsroom of a small-town country weekly. If you look closely at the painting, an artist named Norman Rockwell is opening the door to enter. He’s carrying a large portfolio under his arm.

Rockwell painted more than 300 illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post magazine, and this is one of them. They’ve become emblematic of a simpler, bygone America that people miss. The painting, called “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor,” was donated to the National Press Club in the 1960s. It was hung in a place of highest honor—the entrance to the bar.

Rockwell’s paintings have grown in value. There’s a museum dedicated to his work in his hometown of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The club asked the museum to evaluate the condition of its painting and its possible worth. The answer was startling.

The painting was so valuable the club needed more insurance, security and a climate control system. Which it couldn’t afford. Instead, the club had a copy of the painting made and hung it in the same place. Then it sent the original painting off to auction, where it fetched $11.5 million.

The money, which was invested and has grown, carried the club through the COVID-19 downturn. It also pays for journalism scholarships through a related foundation.

Bonanzas like these may happen more than we realize. Often, they’re associated with property that’s been owned for a long time. I have a friend whose parents bought a few rocky acres in the 1960s to raise their kids off the grid. Decades later, geologists located natural gas beneath the shale. My friend, who grew up without electricity, was able to retire early.

It’s hard to brag about your foresight with events like these—when money seems to fall into your lap almost accidentally. Money is fungible: A dollar buys the same amount of goods and services whether it’s earned through hard work, investment skill or serendipity. Of these three, I think good luck is the least appreciated.

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