By all accounts, Deeds' final years were quiet ones. The nurses remember him as a docile patient. He grew tomatoes and peppers in coffee cans. He had bad arthritis in his hands. Williams suspects it hurt him too much to draw.

"At a point when he was in the nursing home in Ozark, I went to visit him," she says. "He was a melancholy old gentleman. He wouldn't have a book or be drawing. I asked him about it. He said, 'I just don't do that anymore.' I said I remembered us having good times drawing together. He'd grin and nod and say, 'I remember.'"

John Foster is a graphic designer by trade and a collector by nature. He and his wife, Teenuh, have amassed one of the nation's finest collections of found snapshots. They're also interested in outsider art.

Drawing by Edward Deeds.
Courtesy Harris Diamant & Neville Bean
Drawing by Edward Deeds.
Deeds filled his work with images of his private obsessions — including geography, toy boats, the Civil War and circuses.
Courtesy Harris Diamant & Neville Bean
Deeds filled his work with images of his private obsessions — including geography, toy boats, the Civil War and circuses.

One day in December 2006, Foster left his office and went home for lunch. As is his habit, he began poking around on eBay.

"There were three drawings," he recalls now. "Their eyes were extraordinarily large. They were quite penetrating and revealing. There was the fact that they were on stationery or letterhead from a lunatic asylum, the period clothes. It all made me immediately think there might be more."

Unusually for eBay, the seller, a used-book dealer in Lawrence, Kansas, had listed his name and his location. (Since then, he has requested that Foster and Diamant, who also responded to the listing, not divulge his name.) Foster immediately sent an e-mail asking the dealer to get in touch. He got a return phone call almost instantly. His message had not been the first the dealer had received that day.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, there's chum in the water, and the sharks are swimming!' I had one chance. And I had proximity, unless somebody was already on a plane to get to them first." Within the hour Foster had called in sick to work and was on the road to Lawrence.

That evening Foster met the dealer at his home to look through the drawings and learned the story of this strange collection. A few weeks earlier, a man in Texas, guided by the hospital imprimatur on the ledger paper, had e-mailed Lyndon Irwin, a historian who maintains a Web page on the history of the old asylum in Nevada.

"He said he had a book of old drawings he had salvaged from the trash as a young teen," Irwin remembers. "He'd held on to those. Now he was interested in selling them and asked what I would do. I suggested eBay."

The dealer in Lawrence had snapped up the book. He'd unbound the volume but wanted to sell the entire collection as a single lot. The price he asked was, for Foster, breathtaking — more than he had ever paid for one thing in his entire life. He declines to disclose the sum but notes it was "more than $10,000," payable in cash.

Foster made an offer. It was accepted. He drove back to St. Louis that night and got the money together. Three days later he and the seller met in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel halfway between St. Louis and Lawrence and completed the deal.

"I said to myself, 'It's now or never, John. If you can't trust your eye after 30 years of looking at art — you need to be able to trust your eye. This is the time.'"

Within weeks, though, Foster was beset by buyer's remorse. He wasn't a dealer or a gallery owner; he was a collector. He liked owning the drawings, tracing the lines drawn by the unknown artist — but what on earth could he do with them? "I realized I had tied up a ton of money in paper things sitting on my table and on my living-room floor," he says.

The Kansas dealer had given him a list of other buyers who'd called about the book. The name at the top of the list was Harris Diamant. Foster called and asked if Diamant was still interested. "You bet I am!" the New Yorker replied. "How much do you want?" Foster quoted a sum that was twice what he'd paid. Diamant, who has been dealing in American folk art for 45 years, didn't blink. The two men arranged to rendezvous in Boston. Foster would bring the portfolio, Diamant would bring a check. If the drawings lived up to their billing, he promised, they had a deal. When they met at a Cambridge hotel, Diamant looked through barely half of the collection before he reached into his pocket and pulled out the check.

"It was instant," Diamant recounts. "Most of the time you look and wonder if it's as wonderful as it's supposed to be. You try to slow down. But here it was not the case. I like owning stuff but not nearly as much as I like discovering art and making judgments. This was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. It should have been thrown away, but for some reason it still existed. It was extraordinary. I was giddy."

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