August 11, 2003 12:00 PM

The instant Teri Horton spotted the “ugly” painting in the thrift shop, she thought its childish swirls of color might be just the thing to cheer up a friend with the blues. But it looks as if Horton could end up basking in the green—11 years after forking over $5 for the unsigned canvas, the retired trucker could walk away with millions from the sale of what one expert believes to be a genuine Jackson Pollock. “I had no appreciation of art history whatsoever,” confesses Horton, 70, who lives in a Costa Mesa, Calif., trailer park. “All I knew about art was that Michelangelo painted for the Pope or something.”

The gag gift’s intended recipient, Theresa Paquin, thought the 66-in.-by-48-in. canvas was a hoot but refused to accept it. “It could barely fit through my door,” she says. A year later Horton showed the work to an art instructor pal. “He said, ‘Oh, my God…this is painted in the style of Jackson Pollock.’ I said, ‘Who’s Jackson Pollock?'”

Research at local libraries gave Horton the broad strokes on Pollock, a modern master famed for his “drip” technique—pouring splashes of paint directly onto a canvas. She began contacting art experts and museums hoping to authenticate her find. She finally hit potential pay dirt with forensic art expert Peter Paul Biro. In February 2001 Biro reported finding a fingerprint on the back of the canvas, which he says matches one in Pollock’s studio. “I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus,'” Horton says of the news. “Now I had proof.”

Not all experts agree. But Horton hopes the print will persuade a collector to pay close to the $20 million Biro estimates the work is worth. As for Horton’s pal Paquin, “I still don’t like it,” she says of the putative Pollock. “I still wouldn’t hang it in my house.”

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