When it comes to learning how to spot a treasure, the first thing you have to learn is where to look. In my experience, the best places to look for valuable antique treasures are at yard sales and inside people’s homes.
I’ve been known to say that it is a better use of your time to watch sports this weekend than to schlep all of your unwanted stuff down from your attic and onto your front lawn in order to host a yard sale. Most yard sale sellers have lost as much as 80 to 90 percent of the actual value of their unwanted items by selling them at a yard sale.
Yard sales are one of the places where auction houses send out runners and pickers to get inventory for their auctions.
Many people don’t realize that yard sales are big business. They aren’t just an exercise where you can make a few bucks and clear out some space. They are a high-stakes game of getting great stuff for cheap. The person making really big money at your yard sale is not you.
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Major yard sale mistakes
An oil painting by Martin Johnson Heade, a 19th-century American realist painter, sold at a yard sale in California for $18. The seller didn’t know it was a masterpiece. The buyer certainly did, and he resold the painting at auction for $425,000 and it is now in the collection of a major Texas art museum. Is there an old painting hanging around in your basement that you think is ugly but is really worth a fortune? I’ve seen it happen.
A Chippendale table sold at a yard sale in New Jersey. The buyer who knew the value and origin of the table bought it for $35 and then resold it for $3 million at an upscale antique furniture sale. Would you recognize a valuable antique table sitting in your grandmother’s den?
At a Pennsylvania yard sale, I picked up a clearly marked platinum and diamond ring with a $10 price tag on it. When I told the yard sale host what I had found, she argued with me. She told me that the price was $10 firm (even though I had not asked her to reduce the price). I explained to her that I didn’t want a discount nor did I want to buy the ring. I wanted her to realize that she made a big mistake and that she should take the ring back into the house. After much discussion, she thanked me for saving her from losing a $5,000 family heirloom.
People regularly make these kinds of mistakes at yard sales. And I take the heat from the pickers, resellers and other yard sale runners who don’t want me to reveal this kind of information to the general public.
Many people who want to sell off unwanted stuff will have me come through their home and appraise the objects that they want to sell off before they have a yard sale.
My motto: Don’t host a yard sale. You can lose your heirlooms as well as your shirt.