Close this search box.

Purchase At Tucson Estate Sale Generates $574,730 Profit

Print Article


“Estate sales” are a popular American pastime. After the owner’s death or disability, personal effects may be offered for sale to the public, and bargain hunters love to poke through the merchandise. Some shoppers are hoping to find a perfect match for their own dishes, some are looking for quaint period pieces, and some are looking for treasures unknown to the estate sale organizers.

When Martha Nelson died in Tucson in 1996, she left a household of personal items, furniture and artwork. Among her possessions were two oil paintings of flowers. Nothing indicated that there was any particular value to those two paintings, and no one realized they might be valuable.

The personal representatives of Ms. Nelson’s estate decided that her household goods should be offered for sale, and they contacted a Tucson appraiser to help them organize and price the items. Although the appraiser made it clear that she did not appraise fine art, neither she nor the personal representatives thought it necessary to secure additional appraisals of the paintings. They were included in the estate sale, and Carl Rice bought both for a total of $60.

At home with his estate sale buys Mr. Rice compared the signatures on the paintings to samples in an art book. He thought maybe he had stumbled onto paintings by Martin Johnson Heade, a notable American Hudson River School Painter who died in 1904. He ultimately turned out to be right; the paintings were “Magnolia Blossoms on Blue Velvet” and “Cherokee Roses.” Mr. Rice then sold his two paintings at auction through Christie’s in New York for a total of $1,072,000.

When the personal representatives of Ms. Nelson’s estate learned of the sale, they brought suit against Mr. Rice to recover the value of the paintings. They argued that the purchase was the result of a mutual mistake between the parties, and that the purchase price of $60 was simply unconscionable. The trial judge dismissed the complaint and Ms. Nelson’s estate appealed.

The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit. The personal representatives had relied on someone who was “admittedly unqualified to appraise fine art,” and they therefore “consciously ignored the possibility that the Estate’s assets might include fine art.” That, according to the Court of Appeals, meant that Ms. Nelson’s estate had assumed the risk of any mistake, and Mr. Rice would be allowed to benefit from the mistake.

As for the argument that the low purchase price was unconscionable, the Court of Appeals noted that the price was set by the estate and that Mr. Rice paid it without negotiation. While the result might seem unconscionable to the estate in hindsight, it was not unconscionable at the time of purchase. Estate of Nelson v. Rice, October 31, 2000.

Mr. Rice may have been the year’s (and perhaps the decade’s) best bargain-hunter. After income taxes and commissions on the sale, he and his wife realized $574,790 from his $60 investment.

Stay up to date

Subscribe to our Newsletter to get our takes on some of the situations families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities find themselves in. These posts help guide you in the decision making process and point out helpful tips and nuances to take advantage of. Enter your email below to have our entries sent directly to your inbox!

Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.