It’s a common enough dream – you pay a few cents for a dusty old trinket at a thrift store and it turns out to be a rare antique worth a small fortune. Of course that is extremely unlikely to happen to you – but it’s not completely impossible. Read on to discover 20 times when something like that actually did happen in real life.
20. $35,000 Watch
Zach Norris of Phoenix, Arizona actually paid a visit to his local Goodwill looking for a secondhand golf trolley. But he found a completely different bargain. What he spotted was a vintage diver’s watch from 1959, made by the exclusive Jaeger-LeCoultre company. He paid $5.99 for the watch – then sold it on a specialist watch collectors website for $35,000.
19. Artist’s necklace
Famous American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is well known for his large sculptures and his mobiles. He’s less well known for his jewelry, but nevertheless it’s highly valued. So when you happen across a piece of Calder jewelry in a box of junk at a Brooklyn fleamarket selling for $15, just buy it. One lucky but anonymous collector did just that, going on to sell the piece at auction in 2013 for $267,750.
18. Not just any old sweater
North Carolina Goodwill Clearance Center sells off goods at a fixed rate per pound of weight. Married couple Sean and Rikki McEvoy, from Knoxville, Tennessee, made a speculative purchase, and when they got home discovered their lot included a black sports sweater that had belonged to revered football coach Vince Lombardi, who died in 1970. They paid something like 58 cents for the shirt. In 2015 it fetched $43,020 at auction.
17. Declaration of Independence
A lucky bargain hunter saw a damaged and nondescript painting in 1989 at a flea market in Adamstown, Pennsylvania. Because he liked the frame, he handed over a whopping $4 for it. But behind the painting was an astonishing find – an original printing of the Declaration of Independence, from July 4, 1776. Sotheby’s auctioned the document for $2,420,000 in 1991.
16. Masters green jacket
It was in 1994 that someone walked into a thrift store in Toronto, Canada, about to receive a big surprise. This someone was an avid golfer, so when they spotted a green jacket going for $5 they knew exactly what it was and snapped it up. In fact, it was an Augusta National green jacket from the 1950s. Even although the name of the golfer who’d worn it was missing from the jacket, in sporting memorabilia terms this was dynamite. The secondhand jacket sold for $139,349 (note: all of the prices in this article are given in U.S. Dollars).
15. A bowl to treasure
This rather ordinary looking bowl went for $3 at a garage sale (rather than a thrift shop) in 2007. The New York family that bought it had it displayed on their mantelpiece until they decided to let auction house Sotheby’s have a look at it. The family must have been astonished when experts there said it was worth $200,000 to $300,000. But the experts were wrong. In 2013, the bowl actually fetched $2.2 million.
14. Wall covering worth a million
An Indiana man splashed out around 30 bucks for some furniture and a painting at a thrift store. The painting perfectly covered an unsightly hole in a wall. Some time later, the man was playing a board game themed on art auctions. One of the cards had a strangely familiar painting. He took that painting down from the wall and had it appraised. It was a highly desirable work, “Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth,” by the American artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904). In 1999 Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts paid $1.2 million for it.
13. Chinese cup bargain
In Australia, thrift shops are known as “op” (short for opportunity) shops and serve the same purpose as thrift shops do in the U.S. One lucky Australian bought the peculiar looking cup pictured here for a little over $3 in a Sydney op shop. It’s actually a rare Chinese libation cup carved from rhino horn. At Sotheby’s in Melbourne, the cup fetched over $60,000.
12. Not-so-cheap Chinese pot
This next Chinese item was found in a Bristol, England “charity shop,” the British name for a thrift store. It arrived at the charity shop in a bag alongside a few other bits and pieces. But fortunately staff at the store, which raises funds for a local hospice, recognized that this might be something special. And it is – it’s a bamboo pot made by revered Chinese artist Gu Jue between 1662 and 1722. Despite needing extensive restoration, it sold for over $500,000.
11. Velvet Underground
Warren Hill was always on the lookout for rare records and he knew he’d spotted one back in 2002 at a New York street sale. This was an acetate Velvet Underground album that had been intended for distribution to record labels only. Subsequently several of the songs on it were included in the first official Velvet Underground album. Hill sold the acetate on eBay for $25,200 in 2006.
10. Diamonds are forever
In the U.K., a “car boot sale” is an event where a bunch of sellers get together in a parking lot or field and sell stuff from the trunks of their cars. You really wouldn’t expect to find anything of significant value at one of these. But one buyer found a ring they liked at a car boot sale at a London hospital in the 1980s, and paid about $14 for it. Unaware of its value the buyer wore it for years before finally having it appraised. Turns out this ring included a 26.27 carat diamond. At auction in 2017, it went for over $915,000.
9. A handsome handbag
It was 2012 when John Richard of London’s West Hampstead found a bag he wanted in an Oxfam charity shop. He paid just a bit short of $30 for it. It certainly has a distinctive look, emblazoned as it is with Andy Warhol created prints of Elvis Presley. And it transpired that the bag was a limited edition of 10 made by top designer Philip Treacy. The bag could be worth in excess of $480,000.
8. Sofa art find
A student in Berlin, Germany needed some furniture for her apartment. Visiting a flea market in the city, she purchased foldaway sofa for $215. When she got it home and opened it out, out fell an old master by an unknown artists associated with Italian master Carlo Saraceni, pictured here. The oil painting, dating from between 1605 and 1620 and measuring 10 by 15 inches, was sold in 2007 at a Hamburg auction house for $27,630.
7. Chinese censer
A lady was browsing the bargains at a charity shop in the county of Somerset, England, when she spotted an attractive metal bowl. She promptly bought it for the asking price, a little less than $3. Experts recognized the bowl as a Chinese tripod censer from the period when the Qianlong emperor ruled during the 18th century. The elegant bowl went on to fetch nearly $30,000.
6. Goodwill American master
A painting donated to Goodwill Industries of the Columbia-Willamette was probably worth around $10, staff believed. So they put it on the shopgoodwill.com auction site at that price. But somebody spotted it and confirmed that it was a watercolor by renowned American artist Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951). Once bidders knew that, the bids went up briskly, topping out at $165,002.
5. Picasso poster
Zachary Bodish of Columbus, Ohio liked the look of a poster he saw in a Volunteers of America thrift store in Clintonville, Ohio in 2012, so he bought it for $14.14. What Bodish thought was nothing more than a reproduction poster for a Picasso exhibition turned out to be a linocut that the artist had made himself. A private buyer was happy to pay Bodish $7,000 for his Picasso poster.
4. NASA spacesuits
Students Talia Rappa and Skyer Ashworth were rummaging through the stock at a Salvation Army thrift store in Florida, which was soon to close for good. Then they noticed something interesting among the heaps of old clothes. What they’d found was six NASA spacesuits. They paid 20 cents each for the suits, which dated from the early 1980s. The estimated value of the suits is $5,000 each, giving the two students a handy potential profit.
3. James Bond’s watch
An anonymous buyer spotted a distinctive-looking watch at a British car boot sale and paid $35 for it. In fact, the watch was not only distinctive, but completely unique. It was the very watch that Sean Connery wore when he played James Bond in the 1965 blockbuster Thunderball. Auctioned in 2013, the Breitling Top Time fetched $145,000.
2. Card table
Claire Wiegand-Beckmann of Bergen, New Jersey bought a card table at a garage sale in the 1960s for the princely sum of $25. It wasn’t until Wiegand-Beckmann took her table onto the TV show Antiques Roadshow in 1997 that she realized her table was from the 1700s, and definitely valuable. In 1998, at the Sotheby’s yearly Important Americana furniture and folk art sale, the little table sold for a staggering $541,500
1. Video game jackpot
Video game enthusiast Jennifer Thompson of North Carolina found this old Nintendo cartridge in a Goodwill thrift store and paid $8 for it. It turns out that this title, Stadium Events, is much sought after by aficionados. If you’re not a video game fan, it might be hard to understand why some people would put such a high value on this old game. But they do, and one of them paid $25,000 for it.