(Photo: Goodwill Industries, via Facebook)
You’ve heard the stories. An average Joe walks into a thrift shops, pokes around, picks up a painting or a vase or some other random item for a couple of bucks and actually ends up with a collectible piece worth hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars.
Just last month Phoenix resident Zach Norris dropped a paltry $5.99 at a local Goodwill on a diving watch that he discovered to be a rare 1959 Jaeger-LeCoultre — one of only 900 ever made. Around the same time an elderly Ohio couple plunked down 58 cents for a West Point sweater that turned out to have belonged to the late NFL legend Vince Lombardi … with an estimated value of about $20,000.
So how come when the rest of us head to Goodwill or the Salvation Army or a local thrift store we only seem to find old T-shirts, cheap jewelry and weathered paperback books? Turns out there’s an art to the game of thrift shopping. Here, experts share their tips on finding a valuable needle in a haystack of junk.
When someone is packing up boxes of old stuff to donate, chances are they’re going to hang on to family heirlooms like jewelry. But that’s less often the case when it comes to seemingly unglamorous sets of dishes and glassware. They’re breakable, need to be boxed up and require room to store, so they’re often given away without a second thought. And they can be worth a lot.
"There are sets of china that cost thousands and thousands of dollars and you can very easily find it for $19.99 for the entire set" says Pippa Williams, who founded the thrift shopping blog Too Cheap Blondes with friend Jen Meneely. “You can also find beautiful dishes and platters and bowls – separate items like that worth $100 or $200 for $4.99 or so.” It’s also easy to know what you’re getting before you buy since most china is stamped with a name.
The Bigger the Better
"More often than not, if someone is emptying out Grandma’s house, they don’t want to go through all of her furniture to figure out if one armoire is worth $3,000. If it’s not their style, they don’t see through that," says Krista Byers, a Florida-based interior designer and founder of the blog Goodwill Glam. She also points out that many resale shops will send a truck to pick up bulky items like furniture, which means when someone’s downsizing to smaller place, calling in that pickup can be a tempting alternative than than dealing with hiring movers or putting stuff in storage. Thus, high-end pieces of furniture worth hundreds or thousands can wind up at thrift stores with price tags of $50 or less.
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Bring Your Smartphone
Back in the day, you’d have to really know your stuff in order to recognize if something you scoped out on the shelf was worth a small fortune or not. Today, anyone can become a quick expert thanks to the good old Internet. “Hop on a search engine and put in all the information you can about it. Within minutes I can usually find out what it’s worth,” explains Byers, who adds that vintage furniture often features a stamp with the manufacturer’s name on the back of the piece or inside a top drawer.
Meneely agrees.”Anything we find that looks like it has some age to it, we always look at the name and do a quick eBay search,” she says. “For dishes we flip it over to see if it has a name on it or if it’s stamped or numbered. eBay is our best friend.”
Case in point: Last year Meneely and Williams spotted a nativity set manufactured by a German company called Goebel at a Houston-area Goodwill. They had never heard of the manufacturer but could tell the pieces were high quality. “I looked them up and found they were made by the people who made the Hummel figurines and they were from the ’50s or ’60s,” recounts Meneely. “They were priced at $5 but eBay told me they were worth something.” Nearly $1,200, actually.
Brave All Those Clothing Racks
"We always tell people to start with dresses and jackets," says Williams. "If something stands out, the fabric, the label, or if it’s unusual, take out your phone and do some research on it." Oh, and ignore Goodwill’s "boutique" section. "Ninety-nine percent of the time what they put in that section is [a brand like] Ann Taylor or Banana Republic, yet they might flip right over a Gucci dress or a Burberry dress," she says. Turns out you’re more likely to stumble upon a valuable vintage piece in those crowded racks full of (mostly) plain old pants and dresses. "That’s where your treasures are going to be found, digging in those normal racks," she adds. "That’s where you’ll find a $500, $600, $700 coat for $12.99."
Go Often (But Not Necessarily Early)
If you work a full-time office job, you might be out of luck as many thrift store treasure hunters hit up the stores multiple times a day. But even if you can’t pop in that frequently, don’t worry about what time you get there. Though you might assume you’re better off going at 9 a.m. vs. 3 p.m., you never know when a treasure is going to hit the shelf.
"All of the big chains, they restock all throughout the day. Probably every 30 minutes or so you’ll see them roll a rack from the back," says Meneely, "It’s all day long."
Skip the Flea Market
It makes sense: A vendor selling a few dozen – or even a hundred – items, at a flea market booth is totally on top of what every item is worth and what he or she needs to get to make a profit. “People who are holding flea markets are professionals so they know what they have,” says Meneely. “Your best bet on finding a complete diamond in the rough, passed-over treasure is in a large chain-type thrift store where the pricers are oftentimes people who aren’t trained in high-end brands and how to identify antiques.” And remember, when you’re buying via a non-profit thrift store like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, your money is actually going to a good cause.
Get to know the workers at your local thrift shop and, if you’re on the lookout for something specific, let them know. Byers says she’s had employees text her when a piece of furniture she’s in the market for shows up. “It pays to be friendly,” she adds. “And it’s always fun to go home and say ‘Hey babe, I bought a $1,500 coffee table today for 40 bucks!’”
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