Lost treasure found by FIU professor in abandoned furniture
Inside a Miami Beach showroom that boasts $12,000 daybeds and $6,500 lounge chairs, furniture store owner Jesse Brody never envisioned that his most prized possession would be one he got for free and had tried unrelentingly to give away for years.
It was around 2014, inside a dilapidated home near where he grew up in Morningside, when Brody first saw the 1920s-era dental cabinet that would come to consume his thoughts.
The cabinet’s owner — Rolando Periche Mojena, a Cuban immigrant — died in November 2013, according to public records, and his home was gutted to make room for a new owner, Brody said.
The cabinet “was all steel, and I build furniture so I thought it was really cool,” said Brody, the owner of CA Modern Home in Miami Beach and an expert craftsman who teaches small-metals fabrication as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. “I unscrewed it from the walls, full of garbage and trash, and I dragged it back to my house and dragged it back to my warehouse, where it actually sat for years in the back of my warehouse.”
What he didn’t know: Before his death at the age of 72, Periche appears to have tucked away a hidden treasure of sorts inside that old cabinet. Along with Periche’s old Cuban passport and naturalization documents, the nest egg also contains several stacks of money valued by Brody at a couple of thousand dollars, delicately crafted gold and diamond jewelry and an American Eagle gold coin valued at $1,500 by the U.S. Mint. Also inside were gold and platinum shavings, which Brody said could indicate the owner was a jeweler.
The cabinet sat inside Brody’s warehouse in Allapattah, a handyman’s candy store crowded with antique machinery, beautiful cars and every tool imaginable, for close to five years.
After his repeated attempts to give the cabinet away to someone with time to remodel it failed, Brody decided to act.
“Nobody wanted it because they said it was too big, so I don’t know, something happened last weekend where I said, ‘I’m either throwing it out or I’m going to use it,” Brody said. “It’s not sitting here anymore.”
So he and his warehouse assistant took on the job themselves, pressure cleaning the long forgotten relic and removing the old garbage stashed inside.
Going drawer by drawer to strip away the old paint, Brody and his assistant noticed something stuck in the space at the back of the cabinet. It was two hastily packaged boxes.
“I take the drawer out and in the back is a ‘Sun-Maid Raisins Bread’ bag and it looked like a loaf of bread. ... Instead of finding moldy bread, it’s full of gold [and] cash. ... I said, ‘My God,’ I mean you hear about this kind of stuff.”
Brody, who specializes in both small-metals fabrication and industrial manufacturing, seems to be the perfect person to have found this cabinet. Using his eye for jewelry, he valued the entire haul at up to $30,000, although it’s impossible to say with any certainty how much the stash is worth without a legitimate appraisal.
Despite arm twisting from some of his friends, Brody said he couldn’t imagine keeping the treasure.
“You can argue both sides, to keep or not to keep,” he said. “A lot of people told me I was stupid, but at the end of the day, it belongs to somebody. It’s not mine. ... I could never keep it.”
Michelle Barros, an FIU graduate and Brody’s warehouse assistant, said that when she saw the mysterious package, she tried not jumping to Miami-themed conclusions.
“I hope it’s not drugs,” she said.
But after seeing what was inside, including the owner’s passport and pictures of his family, she was reminded of her own grandmother.
“Somebody must be missing this,” she said. “I would think of my grandmother doing the exact same thing. She used to hide things in very strange places.”
Brody does not plan to deliver his findings to the police, because he doesn’t trust anyone but himself to safeguard the valuables. He said he hopes that by making his discovery public, the rightful heirs of the treasure will come forward.
“Maybe it’s heirloom jewelry,” he said. “Maybe whatever the value of this, twenty [or] thirty thousand dollars, maybe that makes the difference in somebody’s life, and maybe I was meant to find it and to give it back.”