There are plenty of wannabe junk sale millionaires who trawl yard sales, car boot sales and secondhand shops looking for the hidden gem that’ll make them a millionaire. After all, don’t we often hear that one man’s trash is another’s treasure? Spring time is spring clean time, and that means yard sales. Sure, we’ve all heard the stories of fantastically expensive finds people have scooped up for next to nothing yard sales, but these often seem more like urban legends than fact.
Take Terri Horton, the 70-something former long haul truck driver who bought a cheery painting to hang in her friend’s trailer for $5. Turns out it was too big for the trailer and so she put it up for sale in her own yard sale. An “expert” looked at it and told her it might be by the American abstract painter Jackson Pollock. A documentary was made about her quest to authenticate the painting, ‘Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?’. The film depicted Teri as a gutsy working class warrior up against the snooty art world. Still, most experts doubt the painting’s authenticity. Most recently, Teri claimed a Middle Eastern art lover had offered her $9 million. She said no, and was holding out for $50 million. To date, she has made zip – but she’s had her fifteen of fame.
As well as some near misses, there are those who think they’ve scored big and end up actually losing money. Like Tony Marohn; in 2008 he bought a box of papers at a California yard sale for $5. When he went through the box, he discovered a stock certificate for 1,625 shares in the Palmer Union Oil Company. So, he did some research. Turns out Palmer eventually merged with Coca Cola. He saw big dollar signs. He calculated (at the then current price of Coke stock), the certificate was worth some $130 million and so he wrote to the commercial giant to demand he be issued Coke shares. In response to Marohn’s demand for some one million shares, Coke filed suit. Happy ending? Not for Marohn. A judge in a Delaware court has basically thrown out Marohn’s claim, and Marohn and his family have likely lost money, thanks to expensive legal fees.
And there are those who claim to have found treasure, cannot prove it and make money anyway. Rick Norsigian’s junk sale story is a hopeful one: Rick paid $45 at a California yard sale for photographic negatives he later claimed were by famous American photographer Ansel Adams. Not so, say the Adams Trust people. Rick though, quick to spot an opportunity, started producing posters and selling them online. Litigation ensued. In an out of court settlement, Rick was allowed to continue selling the prints, but could not use the Adams name. Since he’s getting up to $960 per “limited edition” poster, he’s probably still pretty happy. And while not labeling the prints as Adams, Ansel’s name is judiciously mentioned on parts of the site.
Then, there are a few genuinely shocking stories that give hope to every second-hand treasure hunter. The following are 10 examples of people who really took yard sale finds from trash to big cash.
10. Tiffany Studios Peacock Mirror
Bought for $2
Valued at $35,000
In 2009, a New Mexico man paid $2 for an “old” mirror at a yard sale. When the Antiques Roadshow came to Phoenix, Arizona he rolled up with the mirror. At the time, it was valued by the appraiser at $25,000 and was said to date from around 1905, some 15 years after Tiffany opened its doors. Recently, similar mirrors have sold for up to $35,000.
9. Bolotowsky’s “Vertical Diamond”
Bought for $9.99
Sold for $36,000
Ilya Bolotowsky was a Russian émigré, a leading light in the abstract movement, who lived and worked in New York City in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Beth Feeback, a North Carolina artist, paid $9.99 for two paintings, thinking the canvases were nice and that she could paint over them. She noticed Bolotowsky’s name was on the back of “Diamond” and when she Googled it, she was shocked but happy to discover its value. It fetched $36,000 at auction.
8. John F Kensett oil paintings
Bought for $35
Valued at $100,000
“Holy moley” was the man’s reaction when the appraiser told him in 2006 that the pictures he had purchased in a Philadelphia yard sale for $35 were the work of American 19th artist John F. Kensett and worth $100,000. Nearly a decade later, Kensett’s works are selling for $300,000 and up. Holy moley indeed.
7. 19th Century Folk Art Jug
Bought for $25
Valued at $170,000
A Kentucky man paid $50 at a yard sale for two “interesting” jugs. He then sold one of them for $52, reaping a profit, and took the other one to be appraised. Dating from the American West in 1860, the second jug was worth a bit more. Say, $170,000 more. He expressed the requisite shock and awe when the Antiques Roadshow appraiser broke the happy news.
6. 17th Century Flemish School Painting
Bought for $3
Sold for $190,000
Leroy (no last name given) was an 80-something retired antiques dealer when in 2010 he paid $3 for a still life painting. He didn’t much care for the painting, but he liked the frame, which he planned to use. His daughter-in-law took it to be appraised and guess what? It was a 17th century Flemish School work with an estimated value of $30,000. When Leroy had it auctioned off, it fetched $190,000. Let’s hope the daughter-in-law got a cut.
5. 1820 Copy of the Declaration of Independence
Bought for $2.48
Sold for $477,000
Stan Caffy, a Nashville music equipment technician, picked up what he knew was a copy of the Declaration of Independence for $2.48. He sold it at auction for $477,000. The “copy” was one of only 200 copies of the Declaration, commissioned by John Quincy Adams in 1820. His plans, to use the cash to buy a used car and add a room onto his house, were commendably modest.
4. Seymour Card Table
Bought for $25
Sold at auction for $1 million
A woman named Claire bought this table some 40 years back at a New Jersey yard sale because she needed a small table to fit into a space in her new home. She had it appraised in 1997 and was shocked to learn its value was some $250,000. It was dated to about 1794 and was the labeled product of well known Boston furniture maker, John Seymour and Sons. We can only imagine the buyer’s reaction when the table was sold at auction a few years later for a cool $1 million.
3. Imperial Vase
Bought for a few dollars
Sold for $1.2 million
In 2002, a Florida woman picked up a pretty little twelve inch yellow vase in a yard sale. When she decided to sell it, she was amazed at the estimate of around $800. But she was floored when the Imperial vase, a 20th century copy of earlier Chinese work, actually sold in a North Carolina auction for $1.2 million. It surprised Brunk’s, the auction house as well. It was their first million dollar sale.
2. Andy Warhol sketch
Bought for $5
Valued at $2 million
Andy Field was a Brit on vacation in Las Vegas when he purchased five sketches at a yard sale for $5. The seller mentioned that his mother had helped to care for Andy Warhol when he was a child, but Field took that with a grain of salt. He thought no more of it until he decided to reframe some of the pieces. Turns out that one of the sketches (the one on the left in the above photo) was a sketch done by Warhol when he was ten. Field, a U.K. businessman, has decided to hang on to the sketch for a while. Nice retirement fund.
1. Ming Dynasty Vase
Bought for $3
Sold for $2.2 million
Snagged in a 2007 yard sale by a New York family for $3, Sotheby’s sold this vase in 2013 for $2.2 million. The Chinese Ding bowl had sat on the family’s mantel piece until they decided to have it valued. The family chose to remain anonymous and not to disclose the venue of the yard sale, perhaps understandably.