Man Ray was an influential artist during the Jazz Age. But how did almost the entirety of his art collection end up in the hands of a car repair shop owner? The story is almost as surreal as the man’s art itself, and it involves a series of trust administration decisions that will likely provide a financial boon for a humble family.

The original art trust was formed by the artist’s wife. Since she passed away, control of her estate has been transferred to her extended family, leaving the artist’s works in the hands of people with little expertise. Now, those family members are going through a crash course in art dealing as they attempt to sell the collection. The pieces altogether may fetch as much as $20 million from museums.

Today, the family manages 15,000 copyrights for Man Ray’s work, and they maintain about $300,000 in licensing contracts for the works. The photographs and props include Surrealist and Dadaist portraits of the man’s muse.

That family is not the only one benefitting from surprising estate decisions related to famous artists. More than 300 artist-endowed foundations are currently in existence in America, more than twice the amount that could be found in the 1990s. The number of trusts has largely increased because of skyrocketing art values, according to experts.

Art curators and historians worry, though, that the family might be tempted to break up the collection if they do not get their $20 million asking price from a single buyer. Researchers and scholars say that the value of the collection lies in its completeness.

That may be tough to do, considering that the artist’s photographs have gone for as much as $2 million each at auction. Family members say that once they sell off the archive, they intend to add on to the auto shop. If the artist and his widow wanted to ensure that the paintings would not be sold, they could have used their estate planning documents to bequeath the collection to someone who would not sell.

Luis E. Barreto