Jeff Rader was browsing through knick-knacks at the Gilroy Salvation Army when his heart stopped.
There, in a small glass case among a spattering of decorative plates, carved wooden ducks and season one of Miami Vice on DVD were two brightly colored fantastical paintings priced at $80 each.
He recognized the artist instantly as Norm Breyfogle, one of the legends in the world of comic art and the primary Batman artist of the 1990s for Detective Comics.
Rader began to quiver and elbowed his wife, breathlessly pointing to the case.
“All of a sudden, he was shaking and pointing. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I knew it was big,” said Rader’s wife, Cathy, who along with her husband graduated from Gilroy High School in 1984.
In a rush, 46-year-old Rader, a self-professed comic nerd, purchased the paintings. The Salvation Army clerk gave him a 15 percent discount on both paintings because the wooden frames were broken in the corner, making the total price for both $136.
After a little research, Rader’s fantasy was confirmed: The paintings were uncirculated, original works by Breyfogle, and are worth more than $25,000 for the pair.
Rader – a full-time comic book dealer and collector dressed in a vintage Superman shirt – spoke fast, working himself into an excited rush as he described his treasures as the “best find of his life.”
He held up the works with pride on a cloudy November afternoon outside the Salvation Army on Camino Arroyo just a few days after he purchased them.
The creations capture wild moments in action, exaggerated by a comic book flair for the mythical. One painting, a 1991 acrylic, depicts a burly man leaning over the ledge of a boulder in the mountains and wearing only in a loincloth. His muscular arms are drawn back as he prepares to launch an arrow at a growling mountain lion. Painted on black canvas, the rich green pine trees and the brown fur on the mountain lion’s back seem to pop out of the darkness, provoking a sense of danger. The other work, an oil painting from 1982, portrays a Fabio-like hunk with washboard abs and a woman in a skimpy bathing suit at the ocean’s shore, bearing down for an attack by a dark purple sea monster as waves break at their sides.
Cathy contacted Breyfogle as soon as they got home through a fan website.
He authenticated the paintings immediately, calling them his “lost masterpieces.”
Breyfogle was at a loss for how the paintings turned up in a Bay Area thrift store. He hadn’t heard about them since he gave them to his sister 20 years ago, who lived in Aptos before moving to Japan a few years back.
“I remember those paintings really well,” Breyfogle said over the phone from his home in Michigan.
He painted the mountain lion piece while in college, followed by the sea monster creation after graduating. Both were completed before Breyfogle reached prominence in the early ‘90s.
There could be several more paintings he crafted during his college years that are floating around, he said, although Breyfogle doubts any of them are at thrift stores.
As for the paintings uncovered at the Gilroy Salvation Army, the works are hard to price since they were never on the market to begin with. Lithographs of Breyfogle’s work sell for $300 to $400 while original paintings are worth around $10,000.
The paintings discovered by Rader first showed up at the Salvation Army in San Jose about a month ago, buried in a box of trinkets and an eclectic mix of mass-produced prints and posters, according to Walter Roa, Gilroy Salvation Army manager. San Jose Salvation Army staff originally placed the paintings on their shelves for $7.50 each, where they didn’t sell for a few days.
“It gives me chills to think they were sitting there that long at that price,” Cathy said. “What if someone had bought them, like, to use the frames and paint over the canvas? We would have never known these existed.”
The paintings were transferred to the Gilroy location, where Roa did a quick Google search of the artist and marked up the price to $150 each.
“I knew they must have been worth something, but I always said it’s going to take someone who really knows this stuff to see that,” Roa said.
The pieces didn’t sell for several weeks at that price, so they were recently marked down to $80 each. Rader stumbled on them shortly after.
He and his wife were giddy about their find, even days later.
“We love thrift store hunting together. We watch Antiques Roadshow together and wish this would someday happen to us. And it did,” Cathy said.
Rader, once ashamed of his love for comics and the world of superheroes, is now a grown-up, “out and proud” nerd.
He gets to revel in that nerdiness with his bride, Cathy – the other “best find of his life” – who shares his love of thrift stores and comic books.
Cathy and Jeff were best friends since they were freshmen at Gilroy High School together in 1980.
“Thirty years later, I finally got up the nerve to ask her to marry me,” Rader said. “I was such a geek in high school, I never thought she’d like me.”
Cathy giggled and made a twirl in her flowy black-and-tan dress that she had also recently purchased at the Gilroy Salvation Army.
The two were married in June of this year during a five-month trip to Gilroy to visit and care for Rader’s mother, Barbara Rader. The couple admitted they were sad their trip to Gilroy was coming to an end – they planned to leave the following day for their new home in South Dakota – but were sure they’d be back to their hometown again.
Rader said he posted his new paintings on fanfare websites, sending ripples through the comic book art community in just a few hours.
“I’m the envy of comic book geeks around the world right now,” Rader said, beaming.
He and Cathy could easily sell the paintings for thousands of dollars, but the couple has more sentimental plans: The artistic treasures will be mounted in the center of the Raders’ living room.
“These aren’t for sale. Don’t ask,” Rader said, laughing. “These are our prized possessions now.”
Rader said he plans to give back to Salvation Army, not only as this holiday season approaches, but for the rest of his life.
“When I hear a ‘salvy’ bell, I’m running to it. These paintings will probably end up costing me thousands of dollars,” he said. “But it’s so worth it.”