There was once a wealthy man who owned a priceless art collection including a number of old masters that were the envy of many art connoisseurs. This same man also had a much-loved son, and they often used to enjoy their art treasures together.
However, war broke out, and the son was called up, and went off to fight. One day, the telegram arrived informing the father that his son had been killed in action. The old man was devastated. He grieved silently, alone and unremittingly.
A few months went by, and one day, there was a knock at the door. A young man stood there, with a small package under his arm. ‘You don’t know me,’ he introduced himself, ‘but I knew your son very well. We were in the same unit, and I was with him when he died. I am the soldier he gave his life for. He saved many lives that day, and he was carrying me to safety when the bullet struck him. We had become close friends, and before he died, I drew this little picture of him, I’m not a great artist, but I want you to have this sketch now.’
The father was silent for a long time, gazing into the eyes of his son, looking out from the soldier’s sketch, his own eyes filling with tears as he gazed. Then he thanked the soldier and offered to pay for the picture.
‘Oh no, sir. It’s a gift. I can never repay what your son did for me, but I want you to have this sketch. It’s all I have to give.’
The father hung the portrait above the mantelpiece, for everyone to see. He treasured it far more than all his other paintings put together, and he showed visitors the portrait of his son before he took them to visit any other paintings.
Not long after this incident, the old man died himself, and his art collection was put up for auction. Art collectors came from all over the world, thrilled at the possibility of buying one of the treasures. The auctioneer began the bidding. The first picture to come up for auction was the unknown soldier’s sketch of the father’s son. The auctioneer tried to start the bidding going.
‘What am I bid for this first picture in the collection?’ he asked. There was silence. Then there were rumblings and grumblings. ‘Come on,’ the art collectors said, ‘get on with the real stuff. No one’s interested in that old sketch. We’ve come for the valuable pieces. Why don’t you just get on with the sale?’
But the auctioneer was having none of it. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but my instructions are clear. The deceased insists that the first item in the sale is this picture of the son. Now who will start me off with ten pounds for the son?
Tentatively, a hand was raised at the back of the auction room. It was the gardener. He had worked for years for the old man, and he had loved the son. I’ll give you ten pounds for the son,’ he said, it was all he could afford. The hammer went down: once, twice, three times. No further bids. No one else was at all interested.
‘Sold!’ called the auctioneer. ‘To the man at the back, for ten pounds!’ there was relief all round. Now the buyers could get their hands on the valuable pieces. But the auctioneer laid down his gavel. ‘The auction is over,’ he declared. ‘My instructions from the deceased are that whoever takes the son receives the entire estate, including the whole art collection. The man at the back who took the son receives everything.’