Trailer Stash: A long-hidden trove of art found in rural Missouri could be worth a small fortune

The leaves were barely on the trees this past spring in northeastern Missouri, and Jason Geisendorfer was driving around Lewistown wasting time and feeling guilty about it. The 41-year-old construction worker hadn't had a paycheck in two years, ever since he injured his back on the job and workers' compensation refused to cover the $300,000 surgery his injury required. Geisendorfer was locked in a legal battle with his employer's compensation plan, and his wife and three kids were living off dwindling savings. They could hardly afford to have him driving aimlessly around town wasting gas.

Yet the idleness of his forced unemployment was almost as bothersome as the slipped disc in his back. A workaholic and constant tinkerer who wears his long brown hair pulled into a ponytail and sports a horseshoe mustache spilling down his chin, Geisendorfer was going stir-crazy at home. So it was on this May morning that he found himself driving down a street he rarely travels, just a block and a half from his house. There, off to the side, he saw it: a derelict trailer surrounded by corroding washing machines, rabbit cages and lawnmowers. In the far back of the yard sat another decaying mobile home and a rusting old school bus barely visible through the trees and reedy overgrowth sprouting up from the lawn.

"Just a nasty mess," Geisendorfer recalls of the scene that day.

As he drove off, Geisendorfer thought to himself: Someone ought to clean that place up.

A couple of weeks later, as he was driving past the mobile home again, he watched as a woman pulled her car onto the property. Geisendorfer stopped his pickup and hollered out the window.

"Do you know who owns this place?"

"I do," replied the woman with long silver hair. "It was my mother's. I inherited it."

The two got to talking, and Geisendorfer eventually asked if she'd be willing to sell the property. A few weeks later he had himself a deal: $600 for the trailers, the bus and the two quarter-acre lots on which they sat. Before they shook hands on it, Geisendorfer says he asked if the woman wanted any personal effects he found that might have belonged to her mother. No, the woman replied, but hinted that there may be some antiques worth something littered among the debris.

Geisendorfer's plan was to scrap or sell anything of value and then try to resell the property for $3,000 — his first real income in nearly two years. To keep his teenage daughters busy during the summer, Geisendorfer offered to give them a third of the resale value. Within a few weeks the girls scrapped $530 worth of metal just from junk in the lawn. While the girls toiled in the yard, Geisendorfer began rummaging through the trailers and school bus. Sorting the mess proved to be more of an undertaking than he had first thought.

"Raccoons had been living inside, and kids had also gotten in there and vandalized the place. It was full of dirty dishes and trash. The woman who'd been living there, I'd say she was something of a hoarder. There were just boxes and boxes of stuff," says Geisendorfer.

Geisendorfer found old toys, jewelry and porcelain worth thousands of dollars that he polished up and took to antique dealers across the Mississippi River in Quincy, Illinois. The paintings that had been left in boxes on the bed he saved until later.

"I was planning on burning all the paintings," he says. "I figured it was a bunch of grandma art. Then I pulled the first painting out the box and was like, 'Whoa, that's pretty cool.'"

See the paintings: The Unearthed Paintings of Virginia Terpening

The 1946 oil painting was titled Gloomy Sunday, and it captured the scene of a pair of barns and barren, wind-blown trees under a bleak gray sky. Attached to the painting was a sticker indicating that the piece had exhibited at a juried show at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Geisendorfer began pulling other paintings out, each one just as impressive as the last. By the time he'd unboxed them all, he figured he had 75 to 100 paintings by the artist Virginia Terpening. But who was she, and what were they worth?

Geisendorfer thought perhaps someone down in Hannibal might know, so he drove the half hour south to Mark Twain's stomping grounds and started asking around. No one at Hannibal's arts council had ever heard of Terpening or Virginia Baltzelle (as some of the work was signed). Same with the gallery owners around town, though one said that she would ask around and suggested he not destroy anything just yet.

Geisendorfer returned to the trailer and started looking for more. Under another bed in the mobile home he found dozens of additional paintings by Terpening. Closets inside the mobile home were brimming with even more. He took the pieces home and tallied them up. He was up to more than 300 paintings and was unearthing more everywhere he turned. In the back of the school bus he found a box containing an additional 212 pieces of art.

The work included art-class pencil sketches and advertising illustrations from the mid-1900s. But it was the oil paintings, many of them depicting recognizable Lewistown landmarks and scenes of small-town life in the 1940s and '50s, that were the most striking.

Click here to view Virginia Terpening's entire collection.

A few days after his trip to Hannibal, Geisendorfer's phone rang. It was Debbie Myers, his high school art teacher who now works as an instructor at Culver-Stockton College in the nearby town of Canton. She had heard about the paintings from the Hannibal gallery owner and asked if she could drop by to take a look.

In June Geisendorfer and Myers spent an afternoon in his garage going through the 700 pieces of artwork he eventually salvaged from the trailer and the bus.

At the end of the day Geisendorfer recalls Myers turning to him.

"Jason," she said, "I think you've pretty much hit the lottery."

He responded: "The little lotto or the big lotto?"

Those who've seen the stash of Virginia Terpening's forgotten paintings most often compare her work to that of Thomas Hart Benton, the iconoclastic artist from Missouri whose richly colored murals ushered in the regionalism art movement popular from the 1920s through the '50s. Like Benton's work, Terpening's focused many of her paintings on the ordinary people and places of rural America — churchgoers, farmers, country landscapes.

"They are not negligible Sunday paintings," says Melissa Williams, an art curator in Columbia who has seen some of Terpening's artwork. "They're lively and have a sense of humor. And that she was a woman artist working at that time is somewhat rare enough to make it interesting."

Myers, the instructor at Culver-Stockton, compares Terpening to another famous female artist active during the same time period.

"The self portraits remind you of Frida Kahlo," says Myers. "There's an introspection there that is very similar."

Buzz Spector, dean of Washington University's School of Art, also sees an influence of pop artists and surrealists in Terpening's work.

"It seems to me that she was channeling the entire spectrum of 20th-century modernism in the privacy of her home or trailer," says Spector. "When she thought about art or artists, she made a painting of it. There are dozens of classical figure studies of nudes also in the collection that show she had a reasonable academic talent. So her decision to paint in clearly non-academic styles is not a matter of a lack of skill."

Yet what — if anything — collectors are willing to pay for Terpening's paintings remains to be seen. Terpening apparently sold very little of her artwork before passing away inside that Lewistown trailer in 2007 at the age of 89. And with virtually no preexisting market on which to base the value of her paintings, a buyer would have to gamble that her artwork is indeed worth anything.

But that hasn't stopped collectors from trying to obtain a few of Terpening's paintings from Geisendorfer.

After his trip to those Hannibal galleries earlier this summer, word spread through the local art community about the guy who'd discovered a trove of paintings in a run-down country trailer. Geisendorfer says one collector offered him $5,000 for a single painting. An art dealer from Hannibal, he says, came to his home and hand-selected 28 paintings that he proposed to buy for $30,000. But it was a call from a guy named Jason Wallingford that seemed to make the most sense.

An auctioneer from Quincy, Wallingford had also heard about the collection by word of mouth.

"I was looking for some new business and talking to a guy I've sold stuff for a few times," explains Wallingford. "He told me I should call that guy who found all that artwork."

See the paintings: The Unearthed Paintings of Virginia Terpening

So Wallingford did, and what Geisendorfer showed him blew him away. Not only did Geisendorfer have hundreds of pieces of Terpening's artwork, he also had documentation suggesting that although she never achieved fame, she was clearly an accomplished painter. Terpening studied art at Washington University in the 1930s under her maiden name of Shoup and exhibited fifteen paintings at the Saint Louis Art Museum in four separate exhibitions in the 1950s and '60s. Geisendorfer pulled one of those paintings, an abstract titled Colored Pieces in a Glass Jar, from the trailer. Among the other peripheral items he unearthed were awards from art shows in Louisiana, Arizona and California, and catalogs suggesting that her work was displayed in New York City galleries at the same times as such luminaries as Andy Warhol and Andrew Wyeth.

Geisendorfer even uncovered a letter from then-president Jimmy Carter thanking Terpening for a riverboat painting she made for him.

Wallingford suggested that Geisendorfer sell the artwork in one lot at auction in the hope that a gallery might purchase the entire collection.

"Some of the paintings are just canvases and need to be put on stretchers," says Wallingford. "Other paintings need cleaning and restoration. A gallery can do that."

Selling the pieces to a gallery could also help publicize Terpening and create a market for her artwork. Like Geisendorfer, Wallingford says, his goal is twofold:

"Yes, I want to make some money on this," he says, "but I also want to get her name out there — give her the recognition she deserves."

Though before Wallingford could sell Terpening's artwork at auction he wanted to make sure that Geisendorfer held a clear title. And that would involve Geisendorfer making another visit to Terpening's daughter.

Last month, V. Ann Baltzelle watched a segment on the local news about her mother, six years after her mom's death. Baltzelle says she isn't sure what to think of all the fuss.

"I'm proud of what she did as an artist, but it's been hard. I still miss her," says Baltzelle, who takes her last name from Terpening's first husband, Jack.

Baltzelle's parents divorced when she was just three, and her dad, a Navy civilian employee, moved off to Guam for the next 30 years. Virginia stayed put in her hometown of Lewistown and married Charles Terpening, a utility worker who was helping string power lines to rural parts of Missouri that were still without electricity in the 1950s. Charles would later go on to run a gas station in town.

Baltzelle remembers art being a constant in her mother's life, with her mom setting up a studio space in their mobile home or in the old school bus out back. Some of her work was commercial, painting signs for local businesses. The bulk of her paintings, though, were for her own enjoyment.

"She'd paint the barn across the street or the gazebo in town," says Baltzelle. "I remember a painting she did of me, dressed in scarves as a child. She did some abstract paintings, too, though I wasn't as big a fan of those."

She recalls her mother entering a few competitions and getting an award from a show in Arizona.

"I know she sent a painting to be exhibited in France," says Baltzelle. "She perhaps could have done more with art, but I don't think art was appreciated as much in the 1950s. Normal ordinary people didn't appreciate it, anyway."

Contrary to some of the stories going around today — about her mother wearing wild clothes and outrageous glasses that drew attention in the one-stoplight town of Lewistown (population 530) — Baltzelle says her mom was never one to put on airs.

"She made a lot of friends around Lewistown," she says. "She was a great letter writer. She lived in Philadelphia while my father was in World War II, and she kept in touch with her landlady from out there for years and years. The same way with one of her classmates from Washington University who moved to Florida. They exchanged letters until she died."

Baltzelle, a retired factory worker who lives in Kirksville, briefly followed in her mother's footprints, attending art school in California.

"I had the talent, people told me, but I guess I didn't have the drive," she says.

Terpening's output dried up in the late 1980s, following the death of her second husband. Baltzelle says that her mother later broke her hip and never fully recovered from it. When she passed away six years ago, Baltzelle says she became overwhelmed with what to do with all her mom's stuff.

"She grew up in the 1930s and couldn't throw anything away," explains Baltzelle, an only child who has no kids of her own. "There are no cousins or relatives to give the stuff to."

As for the deal she made with Geisendorfer — the one in which he now stands to make thousands of dollars from her mom's artwork — Baltzelle says, it "is what it is." When Geisendorfer showed up at her home with a bill of sale stating that he rightfully owned all the artwork, she signed it.

See the paintings: The Unearthed Paintings of Virginia Terpening

"I'm not going to go back on him," she says. "I'm not poor, and I'm not going to live or die from the money made."

Besides, she adds, she also owns quite a few of her mom's paintings. One entitled Midnight depicts a black cat under a full moon. Another painting shows two wild stallions fighting. Terpening painted it for her daughter after Baltzelle brought her a similar photo of the horses.

"She told me that was one of the proudest things she's ever done," recalls Baltzelle. "I never would have thought there would be a market for her paintings, but I'm happy her name is getting out there. She deserved it. She worked hard all those years."

Sealed bids for the life work of Virginia Terpening are due October 21. On that day, Wallingford says, he'll get the top five bidders on a conference call and see if anyone is willing to up the ante. Over the last couple of weeks Wallingford says his company,, has mailed bid packets to prospective buyers in Seattle, New York, Wisconsin, Chicago, St. Louis, Columbia and even Lewistown, where an interested party wants to keep Terpening's art local. He declines to speculate how much Terpening's artwork, now in safe storage in St. Louis, may go for at auction.

Geisendorfer, too, is keeping mum. He has a minimum amount in mind that he hopes to collect for Terpening's art, and that value is almost certainly greater than the $30,000 some "shyster tried to steal it for" over the summer. If the work doesn't collect that minimum, Geisendorfer says, he'll sell off the pieces individually.

"It's really a win-win," he says.

But Terpening's art is more than just that. It's also an answered prayer.

"I truly had been asking God to help because I literally didn't know how we were going to pay our bills," says Geisendorfer, who on weekends serves as the pastor of Freedom and Christ Worship Center, a church he founded in a converted filling station near the edge of town.

"So I buy this old mobile home thinking the big score would be flipping the property. Then I discover all these antiques and think I've really hit the jackpot," he says. "And all along it's these paintings — the things that I ignored — that are probably worth the most."

See the paintings: The Unearthed Paintings of Virginia Terpening