How much is a glass "Necco Wafer" jar half-full of marbles really worth? "$10,000. No questions asked," read the flier on the bulletin board at the ice cream shop, sandwiched between homemade ads for birthday cakes and handymen.
You got the money if you delivered all the missing goods: the marbles, a vintage blender, a little metal bank from Snohomish, Wash., with "Neil" inscribed on the bottom, two teacups, a toy steam engine, a 1926 glass Sani-Straw dispenser filled with paper straws.
So much money, people wondered, for so much junk?
Angela Oddone is a social worker. She's the one who posted "at least a thousand" of the fliers in her Alexandria neighborhood. She also has taken out classified ads, started a Web site with a lost-and-found e-mail address and organized a cheery "Treasure Hunt" for the lost items.
She's also the reason they're gone.
That's where things get complicated.
The story begins, as so many tales do, as a love story. Angela and Anne fell in love. Anne Van Soest, a legal aid attorney, moved into Oddone's cozy duplex in the funky Del Ray neighborhood with the bright yellow door and matching teal rocking chairs on the immaculate, white front porch.
Happily-ever-after lasted about a year and a half.
When the end came this summer, it was about all the things that breakups are ever about: money, control and misunderstandings that only get worse the more you try to make them better. Now there are accusations and threatened litigation over the marbles. The two women speak to each other through attorneys.
Rewind to July 16, a hot Friday night. Van Soest had moved out the month before, taking one carload of her things, and Oddone was ready for the rest of Van Soest's possessions to be gone. She called Van Soest six times that night to tell her to come get her stuff. Van Soest, whose cell phone was turned off, still has the recordings.
Then, as Oddone explained it, "human emotion and bad judgment" took over. She hauled Van Soest's mission-style library table and barrister bookcase filled with prized tchotchkes outside and dumped them at the curb.
At 5 a.m., Oddone awoke to a noise outside and found a woman loading the table onto her pickup. "She didn't speak English, and my Spanish is very limited from high school and college, but I was able to coax her to take the table off her truck," Oddone said.
But the trinkets were already gone.
"I don't think I've ever felt such remorse and regret in my life," Oddone said. "I have no proof that the things that were listed on that flier were in the bookcase, I'm just going on my former partner's word. Nevertheless, they are important to her . . . . As a result, I have launched this campaign to try to recover them."
Did she know how much the marbles meant to Van Soest?
"Not a clue."
"Or maybe she did," Van Soest said. "I mean, she didn't throw out my power tools or my camping gear."
The legal term for what happened is waste. It doesn't happen a lot. But when it does, it usually involves a love gone wrong. The young woman in the Levi's ad does it. Julia Roberts threw Brad Pitt's clothes out the window in the film "The Mexican." Felix Unger's wife nearly hit him in the head with a hurled frying pan right before she slammed the door in his face.
Sometimes, the police are summoned to referee a "property removal." This year, the Alexandria police have been on 73 such calls. On "the last one, the person who went in to remove their property poured vegetable oil all over the clothes of the other guy," said Amy Bertsch, spokeswoman for the Alexandria police. "That was pretty nasty."
The crime of wasting is a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the value of what's been wasted.
Van Soest, 41, who lives in the basement of a new brick townhouse in an area of Fairfax County called Random Hills, values little things. She loves to hold on to them. She loves to display them. She loves the stories they tell. They make her happy.
As a girl in Ithaca, N.Y., she began collecting doll-size playing cards. The steam engine that's missing is one she bought with her first allowance in London, where her father, an animal scientist, took the family on sabbatical. "I know you could go on eBay and find an identical one. It probably wouldn't even cost very much," she said. "But it wouldn't be mine."
It is her grandmother Miranda's teacups that are missing, the "friendship set" bought for booze in the days of Prohibition, during carousing trips to the dirt streets of Seattle and Canada. Gone is Miranda's ruby ring from the mysterious first husband she never spoke of. It's her uncle Neil's boyhood piggy bank that's lost.
In 1994, Van Soest's grandmother practically died in her arms. Then a niece was born. Life felt tenuous and short. Some people get religion at these times. Van Soest got serious about collecting.
A quick tour of any bookstore, a channel-surfing pause on "Antiques Roadshow" or a rummage on the Internet provides ample evidence that Van Soest is in the company of multitudes. Yes, we know all about stamps and coins. But there is also the Butter Pat Patter Association, the International Society of Apple Parer Enthusiasts, the National Toothpick Holder Collectors Society and a thick field guide to Pez dispensers.
The police department's Bertsch collects toys from the 1970s and, in a bag in her room, keeps 500 Floaty Pens, with little figures from "The Last Supper" or Botticelli's Venus sliding around in a clear liquid. "I really need to find a proper way to display them," she said. "But then I feel like I'd have to pick favorites."
Psychologists have studied the phenomenon. They distinguish between collectors, packrats and hoarders. They talk about living in the past, or finding purpose in the hunt for one knowable thing in a chaotic world. Mostly, they talk about the attraction of holding on to things, literally, for dear life, to stave off anxiety about the fact that we are all going to die.
This gets us to the marbles.
You can buy a bag of marbles at any toy store for about $1.29. Or you can go to auction sites on the Web and pay thousands for something old and rare and, strangely, for a child's plaything, never used. One once went for $25,000.
There are special types of marbles with special names: turkey swirls and corkscrews, bumblebees and hermaphrodites, black widows and the almost elegiac "end of days."
There are marble shows, the biggest one in a cornfield every year in Amana, Iowa. There is an annual tournament at which the steely kids from Tennessee with their flint shooters are usually the ringers. Serious collectors often display their marbles on individual pedestals and carefully store them in the foam indentations of gun cases, so no two marbles ever touch.
Van Soest poured the marbles she played with as a child into the now-lost Necco Wafer jar. She added the marbles that her mother and grandmother played with in their day. It was as if she had captured memory and love and innocence in one airtight container.
Of course, she was trying to recapture her childhood, that vanished time, as she put it, "when nothing but what you were doing at the moment matters." But she is also an avid reader of existential psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom, who writes that life has no meaning except the one you create.
The jar of marbles had something to do with that.
It was, she said, "a beautiful collection."
Hopes for the Hunt
On Oct. 2, Del Ray closed its main street for its annual Art on the Avenue street fair. Oddone wanted to make that day the festive deadline for her "Del Ray Treasure Hunt." "We're hoping to do a little bit of: 'Ta-da! Look at what was recovered!' " she said.
She had been praying that a neighbor had scavenged what looked like discarded trash and was just embarrassed to come forward. "I know all up and down our street, we tend to put things outside when we don't want them anymore," Oddone said. "Then you go over to another person's house, and there's your coffee table."
By then, she had revised the list. (The blender turned up in the basement.) And she had reduced the reward to about $4,000, half of which was designated as a donation to the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau.
That morning, she withdrew the cash from a special money market account. She put it in specially marked envelopes, locked them in the safe in her home office and went down to the Volunteer Bureau to wait for people to bring back Van Soest's treasures.
By 6 p.m., she was gone. Nothing had been returned.
Bill North-Rudin, executive director of the bureau, sat in a back room with a pink plastic lei around his neck, counting the money from selling popcorn and painting faces all day. "It just baffles me. The stuff is not worth what she's offering," said North-Rudin, a matchbook collector and golf-club hoarder. "Anyone who had it would surely want to turn it in. They're not going to do better."
The story is not really over. Angela now obsessively scours eBay looking for exact replicas of the treasures. And Anne said she spends most of her waking hours wondering what went so wrong and how much they both have lost.