Treasures in the Attic
It could be at the garage sale down the street. Or in a dusty box in the basement. But precious collectibles are out there, waiting for a sharp eye to discover them. Think it's all luck? Not entirely.
(MONEY Magazine) – When Jim Sands, a Michigan machinist, took his kids out for a neighborhood bike ride a few summers ago, he wasn't planning to go treasure hunting. That was his wife's department. In fact, while he was minding the kids, she was scouring auctions and antique malls for things to resell on eBay, a side business of hers.
Pedaling along, though, Sands came across some people clearing out an old house and asked if he could look around. A piece of pottery caught his eye. "I didn't recognize the make or pattern," he says, "but it was a pretty big piece, and I know big is good." What'd they want for it? Four bucks. He drove back to pick it up later.
Sands didn't know much about pottery, but his wife Melissa did. After a bit of Internet research, she determined that he'd stumbled upon a piece of Roseville pottery--a passionately collected make produced in Ohio during the first half of the 20th century--with a rare wisteria pattern and an unusual blue background. "She put it up for auction on eBay, and it went for $4,700," he says, his voice still tinged with amazement. "She's burning through tanks of gas tooling all over southeast Michigan, and I'm on my bike spending a few bucks. It made us realize that we don't have to go all over the place to find valuable stuff."
Of course, not every family bike ride is going to yield a $4,700 profit. But the Sandses' experience is only an extreme example of how there's some latent, if more modest, profit lurking in virtually every yard sale or pile of cast-off items.
Where are the best places to look? Professional collectors and dealers say large indoor or covered antique malls and specialty auctions, often advertised in trade magazines like Antique Week, are where they go to get "bang for the buck." (On the other hand, they say, you'll seldom find hidden value at flea markets or small antique shops.) But if you're hunting the grossly undervalued item, the sort whose owner really doesn't know what he has, you have to be alert to yard and estate sales, big items at the curb, and people clearing out their garages.
How do you distinguish the rare find among the mountains of junk? Some recommend studying one or two collectible categories--pottery, say, or prints--so you'll know a special something when you see it. But such focus is also apt to blind you to other potential finds; better to remain open to serendipity.
This is not to say you can't improve your treasure-hunting skills--only that the process mostly involves subtle adjustments to your mental state. Sands' bike ride, for example, imparts this basic lesson: One person's trash is another's treasure. Hidden gems are rare--"like being hit by lightning," admits Sands. "But if you go out in the rain waving a golf club, you increase your chances."
Here are some other useful lessons.
• THE FRAME MAY BE WORTH MORE THAN THE PICTURE
It's an old antiquing saw, usually linked to the observation that while the gentry often have terrible taste in art, they can really gild a frame. But it has a more general application: There's often value in what the untrained eye sees as ancillary.
Tom Peterson, a New Jersey banking executive, learned that lesson last year while renovating an old farmhouse he'd purchased. It was on the township's historical register, so he asked members of the local historical society to walk through the house with him. "As we passed an old hanging lamp," Peterson recalls, "one of them said, 'Be careful with that because you never know what you might have.' I tucked that away, but the place was falling apart, so preserving a lamp was the least of my concerns."
Luckily, the lamp wasn't damaged as Peterson gutted the house. He eventually worked his way up to the lamp and saw a "Stickley Workshop" stamp on top. Some online research convinced Peterson that he'd found an authentic product of the legendary American furniture company. So he sent a photo to Rago Arts, a nearby auction house, which estimated the lamp would bring $20,000 to $30,000. "I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Peterson says.
As it turns out, the estimate was way off. When the dust settled, the lamp sold for a whopping $310,000--$10,000 more than he'd paid for the entire house.
• VALUABLE ARTIFACTS CAN BE RIGHT UNDER YOUR NOSE
Every jaw-dropping story of a priceless antique unearthed at a garage sale has a loser: the sucker who sold the thing for a song. Usually it's because a blasé attitude was passed from one generation to the next along with the object itself. But what was once run-of-the-mill may be an objet d'art today. So, say experts, it's worth giving familiar, seemingly humdrum objects in your own attic a fresh look.
In 1998, Sumner Richards, who runs a country store in Maine, found a cigar box of old photos in his grandmother's house. One, a mining scene, was under glass with gold foil around the edges. "I thought it was neat," Richards says, "so my grandmother gave me the whole box."
The cigar box sat in his living room until 2001, when he cleaned up the mining photo and put it on a shelf of old knickknacks in his store. "Some antiques people came in one day and said, 'Hey, that's a daguerreotype,' which was news to me," says Richards. Then, later that summer, someone offered him $500 on the spot and, when Richards demurred, kept raising the offer, all the way up to $5,000. Richards figured he'd better show the daguerreotype--the product of an early photographic process--to a professional, so he made an appointment with a representative from James D. Julia, a prominent Maine auction house. It went up for auction in 2002, fetching $40,200.
• BECAUSE IT'S TREATED LIKE JUNK DOESN'T MEAN IT IS JUNK
Countless precious pieces have been sold for next to nothing or trashed on the presumption that a thick layer of dust or some dents, cracks or stains have rendered them worthless. But blemishes sometimes attest to authenticity--or can be fixed. Indeed, says auctioneer Julia, serious collectors aspire to get the finest examples, but "items can be beat to hell and still have significant value."
Just ask Doug Russ, a retired police detective in Greensboro, N.C., who found a large landscape painting with an unusual flaw at an estate auction in 2001. "Somebody had thrown a chair through it, literally," says Russ, who bought the painting for $50. "There was an X slashed right in the middle. But all of the pieces were there. I knew it was good--quality is quality, even if it's in rough shape."
It turned out to be a late-1800s work by Thomas Worthington Whittredge, an artist of the Hudson River School. Despite its condition, Atlanta art dealer Charles Tovar paid Russ more than $8,000 for it. (Tovar says he sold it for $10,000 to another dealer, who "spent a lot of money restoring it and probably sold it again.")
The larger lesson behind all these stories is that it pays to be open to possibilities. Or in the words of Jim Sands, who found the $4,700 pottery in a neighbor's garage, "One thing I've definitely learned is to drive slower on garbage days."