A recent discovery of what appears to be a lost image of the famous Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. (Courtesy of Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, Inc., and Richard Schaffer.)

Richard Schaffer was only looking for a violin this month when he stumbled on a Civil War photograph up for auction on the Goodwill Industries Web site.

It was an elegant image of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in his uniform, with a white beard, furrowed brow and circles of fatigue under his eyes.

Schaffer, a veteran collector who pilots a D.C. fireboat and runs a restaurant in Harpers Ferry, had never seen the image before. Was this a lost photo of Lee? Could it be a blockbuster discovery, a treasure among odds and ends?

He joined others who had plunged into the auction. From an opening bid of $4, the price rocketed to three, four, then five figures. Schaffer prevailed in the end, paying $23,000 for what he hopes could be the find of a lifetime.

But he might be wrong.

Some experts said last week that the image might actually be an old photo of an engraving made from an original picture of Lee, or just a copy of the original. Value: $1,000, at best.

But no one is certain.

And Schaffer, 45, says if he was wrong, his money has still gone to a worthy cause — Goodwill’s programs for the needy.

The sale illustrates the continuing hunger for elite pieces of the American past, and the cyber-speed pace of the competition to acquire them.

Goodwill said more than 131 bidders took part in the auction, and the Lee page was viewed more than 38,000 times.

The agency said Schaffer has paid for the photo, and a Goodwill official plans to personally hand it over Monday.

“It’s just like any other investment,” Schaffer said. “It may not have a return.

“But the beauty of this is [the money is] going to Goodwill,” he added. “The rainbow that I see is that, as aggravating as it could be, it’s still a donation to . . . a very important nonprofit. It’s just something we were willing to stick our neck out for.”

The story of item #8504084 began in August when an alert employee spotted the old photograph — technically a tintype — at a Goodwill donation center in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

“Somebody dropped off a donation,” said Suzanne Kay-Pittman, a spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee. “A lot of the times they either have everything in a box or a plastic bag.”

The employee, though unsure what the item was, thought it might have value and sent it to a Goodwill “e-commerce” department in Nashville. There it went up for auction online in late August.

Kay-Pittman said it was not immediately clear that it was an image of Lee, but once the auction began the price shot up to $500 in 12 hours.

The price heads north

Realizing the item might be special, Goodwill pulled it from the auction to do more research, she said.

The agency took the picture to Larry Hicklen, who runs Yesteryear Civil War Relics at the nearby Stones River Civil War battlefield. Hicklen said at that point Goodwill knew it was a photo of Lee.

He said he examined it under magnification and could tell it was quite old. Because it was slightly out of focus, he suspected it might be a copy. “In my opinion, the thing was real as can be and had just been there for a long, long time,” he said.

The image resembled the famous “floppy tie” Civil War portrait of Lee, in which the general’s string tie seems to be coming undone. But the facial expression was slightly different, and Lee is facing in a different direction.

“In my opinion, this is a nice find,” Hicklen said he told Goodwill. “It’s worth some money, probably four digits.”

On Aug. 31, Goodwill reopened the auction for seven days. The item was now described as an “Antique Tintype Photo of Robert E. Lee circa Civil War (1861-1865),” and the agency added that it had been authenticated by a local expert.

Schaffer, who runs the Secret Six Tavern, jumped in several days later when the bids were nearing $10,000. He had gone to the Goodwill site to check out a violin a friend was thinking about buying. He spotted the photo, and “something just triggered,” he said.

Schaffer checked every­thing he could find about Lee photos as the auction continued. “I liked what I found . . . [but] it was a risk.” He worried that the picture had been “heavily copied.”

“Even if it is an image of an image, this is the only known image from this particular photographer at this particular seating,” he argued.

Schaffer theorized that it was a lost photo, or a copy of a lost photo, taken at the same sitting as the floppy tie picture.

“Everything points to that same seating,” he said. “It’s the same uniform. It’s the same floppy tie. It’s the same hairstyle. It’s the same expression.”

He acknowledged that there is an engraving of Lee, likely based on the floppy tie shot, that closely resembles the Goodwill picture. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Real deal or a copy?

Experts at Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy believe the Goodwill photo may be a copy of such an engraving.

“This could go two ways,” said Catherine Wright, a museum curator. “It could be extremely exciting, or it could be extremely underwhelming.

“If this really is a new photograph of Lee, a brand-new pose, then this would be wonderfully exciting,” she said.

But there were lots of photos of Lee taken and copied and recopied and altered.

“There is one very well-known lithograph of Lee that was widely circulated after the war,” Wright said. The Goodwill tintype “looks extraordinarily like the retouched lithograph. . . . This could be . . . actually a photograph based on a lithograph that was based on a photograph.”

Donald A. Hopkins, a Gulfport, Miss., physician and an expert on Lee photographs, believes the Goodwill tintype could simply be an embellished copy of the floppy tie photograph.

“At best, he’s got a period tintype copy of a very common photograph,” Hopkins said. “If I saw that at a show, and it was a period tintype copy . . . on a good day it might be worth a thousand dollars.”

Schaffer, who is intrigued by the debate, said he might call in other experts.

“We’ll find out,” he said. And if he’s wrong, “so we’ll write off $23,000.”

By the way, he said, he never did find the violin.