Good Life

Art & Antiques: Expert tips for becoming yard-sale savvy

I have been advising people about yard sales for decades.

Here are my top tips for those of you who love yard sales — as buyers and as sellers.

Many of us have spent a weekend driving around our favorite neighborhoods to shop on other people’s lawns. Typically you end up buying a few things that you really don’t need, but you just can’t leave a neighbor’s lawn without a watering can, vintage poster and bunch of napkins. You spend $17 and call it a day.

As a well-seasoned art, antiques and collectibles appraiser, there are many things that people don’t know about yard sales. The first thing is that it is big business.

You think it is just small-time stuff with neighbors cleaning out the basement of old junk, but in reality, yard sales are the source of objects that command six-figure price tags in other markets — markets far away from the front yard. That’s right, the high-priced auction and Internet markets for art, antiques and collectibles use yard sales as a major source for inventory. And many of the major auction houses and smaller estate auction houses regularly send out people known as pickers to get some of their auction inventory from yard sales.

These people are sent to neighborhoods where the homes have reached the 50-year mark, assuming that their original owners are ready to move on to assisted-living facilities or downsized residences.

Most unknowing yard sale hosts just think you are offering your items to naïve shoppers and fellow neighbors. Well, be warned. You are competing with the pros out there. These buyers know what you’ve got, what it is really worth and where to sell it for top dollar, and they are not in the game to tell you that you just made a big mistake putting out that Eastlake table or vintage Guerlain perfume bottle on the front lawn.

Your price is all wrong too. These guys are going to get you down on the asking price and take away something very valuable that was once in your house and was once a treasured family heirloom. Know what you have before you schlep it out to the front lawn.

At my mobile website,, you can send a photo of an object from a yard sale and I will tell you its value before you buy it. This is how technology will help you cash in.

Here is an example that will have you thinking twice before you have that yard sale. Recently, a $425,000 floral still-life painting that now hangs in the Houston Art Museum was originally sold at a California yard sale for $18. Yep, the original owner’s family didn’t know that they had a piece of fine art, so they unknowingly sold it at a yard sale for $20. The picker working for the auction house got them down to $18 and the auction house later sold it to the Texas museum for a whopping $425,000. That could happen to you. Find out first.

Tips for buyers

OK, so you get my point but you aren’t hosting a yard sale. You want to know about buying at yard sales. Here are my tips for buyers.

Take cash; it will help your negotiating power.

• Establish a budget and stick to it.

• Be polite but always negotiate. This isn’t friendship, this is business.

• Celebrity items bring big value.

• If it is in poor condition, leave it on the lawn.

• If there is a box of old jewelry that looks like junk, there is probably something overlooked in that box, like a piece of 14-karat gold or sterling silver.

• Take a magnifying glass, loupe or at least your reading glasses.

• Ask the yard sale seller about the item’s background. Even if they don’t know a lot about the item, they still probably know more than you do about it.