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Kalamazoo couple unrolls $5 estate sale buy to discover lithograph worth thousands

Shells World Map.jpg
Barbara Shell sits in front of the life-sized replica she had created of a rare marketing lithograph made for Air France in the 1950s. (WWMT/Jason Heeres)

Every collector dreams of that rare find-of-a-lifetime at a garage sale or estate sale, and a Kalamazoo couple hit that lottery.

Estate sales have always been a hobby for Bobby and Barbara Shell, who said they go to at least one per week. The married couple said they have gotten some of their neighbors in the Vine Neighborhood hooked as well.

“If you watch us go to estate sales, the magic never dies," Bobby Shell said.

Magic indeed. A one-in-a-thousand find worth thousands sat unknowingly collecting dust for years before seeing the light of day.

Barbara's husband, Bobby, spotted a poster tube in the corner of an estate sale without a price tag six years ago. Thinking it could be vintage movie posters, something he collected, he offered the sales agent $5 for the unopened container.

When he hopped back into the car, Bobby handed the poster tube to his wife, who rolled her eyes. When they got home, she set it in the corner of their basement alongside various movie posters Bobby had accumulated over the years.

The poster tube sat unopened and untouched for five years, until their son was searching for some wall art, which took Barbara back to the dusty corner to sort through their possessions.

When the couple opened and unrolled the tube, their jaws dropped when they saw a world map with vibrant colors in pristine condition.

They counted eight separate oversized panels with French instructions for hanging and information about the artist dated 1959.

Barbara quickly picked up the phone to call their neighbor, who worked in the art department at Western Michigan University.

"It was on a Sunday night. She came over here, and she was like, 'Roll that up and don’t ever touch it again,'" Barbara said. "So we knew that it was going to be something really special.”

The Shells went online and began researching the piece. They quickly established they had what appeared to be an original lithograph created by French artist Lucien Boucher.

According to the website of one art dealer, Boucher was known for creating a new genre of illustrated world maps showing all the flight routes serviced by the Air France. The planisphere pieces were used in marketing the international airline, displaying continents and countries with beautiful vignettes of famous monuments or scenes from various destinations across the globe.

With how many sales they've been to over the years, the Shells couldn't remember the house they purchased the map. The shipping label on the tube was addressed to a travel agency in Cadillac, Michigan, so it's unclear how it made it to Kalamazoo.

The oversize Air France logo on the map features the slogan, "Le Plus Grand Réseau du Monde," or "The Largest Network in the World."

While not officially appraised, world renowned British auction Christie's valued a similar work of Boucher’s in size and style at around 18,750, or close to $22,000.

But the Shells weren't interested in the money. "Yes it’s very valuable, but we have no business having it," Barbara said. "We have no business selling it."

After a year of considering options on what to do with the piece, a family member recommended donating it to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

The Shells reached out to KalBlue, a local printing company, who took on the project of digitizing and copying the eight panels. The Shells had numerous smaller posters printed and even created a wallpaper replica that they put up in one of their homes.

Barbara picked up the phone and called a number listed online for the museum's head curator. After she sent him the digital version and the information she had, she got a quick response via email.

"He was very impressed. He wanted to see more, and he was going to point me in the direction of who to talk to," she said.

“A lot of people have asked us, ‘Why are you giving it away?’ Well because, we have to. We have to," Barbara Shell said while nodding her head. "I wouldn’t feel right with the money, so it needs to go to the rest of the United States."

The oversized Air France planisphere poster from the 1950s is now awaiting a final acceptance from the director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

For the Shells, the opportunity to share the Grand Planisphere with the world felt special.

“It’s very humbling to be a normal person, not some multi-millionaire, to have an opportunity to share something this beautiful with other normal people that work their butts off 40 hours a week," Bobby said.

Barbara said having the actual sized replica in their home would allow her to enjoy it forever.

"You can see every single thing on it. I will probably be looking at this the rest of my life because it’s just amazing to me,” she said.

Bouchard, who died in 1971 in Paris, is now Barbara's favorite artist.

The Shells said curators with the Smithsonian involved with the approval process have told them the original will be kept for study, while a replica will be displayed in the museum. They hope to visit once it's displayed.

"I think my neighbors will probably want to go. We’re going to have a road trip," Barbara said. "We’ve always talked about it."

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