07/11/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
After a June 1 landslide left his parents' Laguna Beach, Calif., home teetering over a cliff, Laurence Trevino—given just 15 minutes by authorities to salvage a few possessions—thought twice about saving their old painting of nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano. But he ended up rescuing the canvas—bought for less than $50 at a garage sale—because of its sentimental value: For two decades it had been prominently displayed in the five-bedroom house his father, Albert, 73, an urban planner, and mother, Dolores, 69, a homemaker, had built by hand more than 40 years earlier. Says Laurence, 27, the youngest of the couple's 11 children: "At least that way they'd always have something they love if they moved into a new house."
Now thanks to the painting—and sharp-eyed neighbor Pam Hagen—they can pay for that new house as well. The canvas "gave me the chills," says Hagen, 58, a lifelong amateur painter, of her first good look at the dreamy landscape. "I just knew that it was an important work of art." Experts agreed, identifying it as Evening Shadows, a long-missing major work by Joseph Kleitsch, a key figure in the California plein air style—and valued at $500,000. "I was just in disbelief," says Albert. "My wife and I loved that painting, but it was like an old, worn-out piece of furniture. No one had a clue."
While art dealer Ray Redfern arranges the painting's sale, Evening Shadows hangs in the Laguna Art Museum, alongside three other Kleitsch works. The Trevinos, who are staying at a family friend's home, remain in limbo, unsure yet whether re-engineering of the hillside will eventually allow them to rebuild their dream house. If not, "we can buy a small one somewhere else with the money," says Dolores. "We're not going to be homeless now."