Incredibly Valuable Things Bought in Secondhand Stores

Thrift Store Finds That Are Valuable

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Thrift Store Finds That Are Valuable
Cheapism/DALL-E 3

One Man's Trash ...

Finding a “hidden treasure” buried — sometimes in plain sight — in a thrift store isn’t an urban legend. Sure, you may not know anyone who’s paid off their mortgage thanks to a secondhand-store score, but there are plenty of verified reports of people hitting the proverbial lottery thanks to savvy shopping. Read on for some examples that just might have you considering a U-turn next time you pass your local Goodwill store.

Related: Unusual and Rare Items That Sold at Auction for Serious Money

Carlo Scarpa Rare Pennellate vase
Rago Wright, LLC

Glass Vase

When Jessica Vincent noticed a stunning glass vase in a Richmond, Virginia-based Goodwill, she couldn't believe it was only priced at $3.99 She thought it might be worth a grand, maybe even two.

"It was iridized it was just really beautiful up close," Vincent told USA TODAY. After seeking out a Facebook group dedicated to collectors, she was directed to the Wright Auction House, where she ended up selling her vase, designed by famed Italian architect Carlo Scarpa, for just a little bit more than her initial estimate: a cool $107,100. 

Roman Bust
Roman Bust by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) (CC BY-SA)

Priceless Roman Antiquity

A 2018 thrift-store find made news again last year when it went on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art. According to news reports, savvy antiques dealer Laura Young had bought the Roman bust for $35 from a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas, suspecting it was old. She spent quite a bit of time tracking down its story, eventually learning from a German museum that the bust dates back to the first century B.C. and once belonged to King Ludwig I of Bavaria. The priceless work, which disappeared after World War II, was on display for a year before being returned to its rightful owner, Germany.  

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Profile of Woman (Jacqueline)

Picasso Print

It was back in 2012 when Zachary Bodish of Ohio went to a Volunteers of America thrift shop in Clintonville and purchased what he considered a poster that appeared to be a bit more “matte” than the usual glossy examples. He did a bit of research, surprised by a Picasso signature on his $14.14 find. As reported by ABC News, “Picasso experts said the work is most likely a linocut for which Picasso carved a design into linoleum that was then pressed onto paper with ink by a printer.” Bodish went on to sell his discovery to a private buyer — for $7,000.

Related: 10 Tricks to Updating Your Wardrobe at the Thrift Store

Fernand Léger - Composition, 1938
Fernand Léger - Composition, 1938 by tvbrt (CC BY-NC-SA)

Double Score

In May 2022, an Arizona newspaper shared the impressive tale of Grace Carpenter, an interior designer and home stager. The Phoenix woman told of her latest find, a Goodwill painting of a woman holding a cat. The $32 buy would be appraised on “Antiques Roadshow,” where the experts noted her Charles Craig painting was worth at least $2,000. Nice, right? Well, it kind of pales in comparison to an earlier find that Carpenter related. She had lived in Holland for a decade and returned in 2013 to show her son where she had lived. The Arizona Republic reported: “At a flea market, she found a painting by French artist Fernand Léger for 80 euros which she said was later valued at nearly $1 million after it was authenticated as original by the Comité Léger in Paris. While Carpenter was offered more than 300,000 euros for the painting in Europe, she kept it. She’s keeping the Charles Craig painting, too, she said.”

Declaration of independence 4th july 1776 close up
Andrea Izzotti/istockphoto

Declaration of Independence

Talk about stumbling across a piece of history. Back in 2006, Michael Sparks purchased a copy of the Declaration of Independence at Music City Thrift Shop in Nashville for $2.48. We’ve all seen those copies, items suitable for framing ... well, this one was different. “It turned out to be an ‘official copy’ of the Declaration of Independence — one of 200 commissioned by John Quincy Adams in 1820.” Sparks sold the work at auction for a cool $477,650.

Picasso Plate - White Owl on Red Background
Picasso Plate - White Owl on Red Background by Jens Cederskjold (CC BY-SA)

Picasso Plate

A 2014 “Antiques Roadshow” segment filmed in Boise, Idaho, shared the story of a woman who fell in love with a quirky plate on a 1970 trip to Rhode Island, noting she had paid no more than $100 for it. It sat over her stove for years, a particularly well-loved part of her plate collection: “All of our kids love the smiley face,” she told the “Roadshow” appraiser. He then told her that it was a work by Picasso, created in 1955 as part of the ceramic designs the artist had made by Madoura Studio in the South of France. It was given a “conservative” auction value of $10,000 to $15,000.

Spiral Movement by Bolotowsky
Spiral Movement by Bolotowsky by Peter E (CC BY-NC-SA)

Abstract Painting

A North Carolina artist was looking for cheap canvases when she hit her local Goodwill store in Oak Ridge back in 2012, purchasing a few oil paintings for $10 with the intention of painting over them. One of those finds happened to be an authentic abstract painting by Ilya Bolotowsky, “Vertical Diamond,” that Beth Feeback would go on to sell through a Sotheby’s auction for a “final gavel price” of $34,375.

Billy the Kid escape site
Billy the Kid escape site by Kent Kanouse (CC BY-NC)

Western Americana

An Oct. 14, 2015 headline in the Los Angeles Times said it all: “A Fresno junk store sold a photo of Billy the Kid for less than $2 — it’s worth $5 million.” The story chronicled the 2010 find, a photograph of the famed outlaw purchased with two other images for $2. Called “The Holy Grail of Western Americana” was a 4-by-5-inch tintype from 1878. The score, by Randy and Linda Guijarro, was both appraised and insured for $5 million. The story was so dramatic it was even turned into a National Geographic documentary, “Billy the Kid: New Evidence.”

Detail of Oil Painting by Catherine Arnera, 1989
Detail of Oil Painting by Catherine Arnera, 1989 by John Lillis (CC BY-NC-ND)

17th-Century Painting

A one-time antiques dealer living in South Carolina was captivated by a still life in his local Goodwill store. Thinking it was easily worth a few hundred dollars, the man, who shared only his first name, Leroy, quickly coughed up the $3 asking price. Family members offered to take the piece to an “Antiques Roadshow” taping in Atlanta, where it earned a five-figure appraisal. It was determined to be a 17th-century Flemish oil painting — and would go on to be sold at a 2012 auction for a staggering $190,000.

Ancient Chinese Libation cup antique
Ancient Chinese Libation cup antique by Wmpearl (None)

Spirited Cup

Treasure hunting can lead to fortunes — and knowledge. The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald reported in 2013 that a “$4 op shop buy sells for $75,000.” (What's an "op shop"? Turns out it’s “opportunity shop,” a term for a secondhand store.) It seems an anonymous buyer at a Sydney op shop thought there was something special about a carved piece and bought it for $4. A query to Sotheby’s provided the mystery object’s provenance; it was a 17th-century Chinese “libation cup” carved from rhinoceros horn that the auction house would sell in Melbourne for the shocking figure.

Ben Nicholson - 1939(Composition)

Screen Print

Even we know 99 pence is cheap. Well, that’s what British browser Jo Heaven paid for a “quirky” screen print she came across in her Swindon charity shop back in 2014. “The screen-print on fabric, called George and Rufus, was created by English artist Ben Nicholson in 1938. It is one of four prints made from a single piece of cloth. One of the others is in the V&A Museum in London.” Well, after leaving the shop, Heaven noticed the Nicholson name. It was familiar to her, as she was the daughter of an art teacher, so she knew it was a find. It sold in a London auction soon after for £4,200 (about $6,900), and Heaven donated all the money to charity.

Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder by rocor (CC BY-NC)

Calder Lithograph

We love the clever way the Associated Press told this tale back in 2012: “‘Red Nose’ just meant a reindeer named Rudolph to Karen Mallet until she bought a print by that name for $12.34 at a Goodwill store in Milwaukee. It turned out to be a lithograph by American artist Alexander Calder worth $9,000.” As Mallet told the AP, “I thought, ‘I don’t know if it’s real or not, but it’s $12.99. I’ve wasted more on worse things.” Her loyalty card dropped the price by 65 cents. At the time, Mallet was keeping the piece, although a Chicago appraiser offered a $9,000 valuation.

Stadium Events NES game

Video Game

A good memory — and a quick search — yielded Jennifer Thompson a true treasure from a North Carolina thrift shop back in 2013. She was looking through the $1 DVD section at the Steele Creek Goodwill when a video game in the glass case caught her eye. There was something familiar about the Nintendo cartridge for “Stadium Events,” marked $7.99. Thompson remembered reading an article about rare video games, headed to a nearby McDonald’s to use its Wi-Fi to check — and yes, it was valuable. She rushed back to buy it, then headed to a nearby video store where her find was further confirmed with an “Oh my God” from the clerk. She’d go on to auction it off through a gaming website, with the value placed at $12,000.

Alexander Pope - Emblems of the Civil War
Alexander Pope - Emblems of the Civil War by (None)

Dog Art

A lithograph featuring a dog caught the eye of Maureen Flaherty back in 2015 when she was attending the grand opening of a Summerville, Florida, Goodwill store. She paid $44 for it. Heading to her car, Flaherty was approached by an antiques dealer offering to buy the artwork from her, so she realized she might have a treasure. Research proved she had indeed purchased a 1911 Alexander Pope work called “The Brook Hill Dog.” She found that a similar work had sold online for nearly $3,500. Flaherty auctioned off her work on eBay, earning $5,150. She donated half to a local animal rescue group and used the rest to publish a book on fostering dogs.

Masters green jacket
Masters green jacket by Simon plumb (CC BY-SA)

Famed Green Jacket

It apparently pays to be patient. As reported in 2017, a vintage green jacket purchased by a sports journalist in a Toronto thrift store for just $5 back in 1994 sold for $139,349. It turned out that the jacket was indeed a piece of sporting history, an authentic “green jacket,” given to the winner of the Masters, the prestigious golf tournament held each year at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. As The National Post wrote: “The name of the rightful owner of the blazer — which is not allowed off the grounds of the Georgia club except by the reigning Masters champion — had been snipped from the label. No one knows how the 1950s era jacket ended up in the racks of used sports jackets.” No doubt the journalist was pleased with his story!

Related: Sports Collectibles That Scored Big at Auction

Vintage Photo Frame antique
Vintage Photo Frame antique by (None)

Floral Treasure

It was back in 2013 when British artist Liz Lockyer visited a charity shop in her hometown, Teignmouth. She fell in love with an elaborate vintage frame of a painting filled with flowers and bought it for £5, planning to use the frame for her own work. Later, she found a signature and realized she had purchased an original by Mary Moser, an 18th-century British painter who was one of only two female founders of the Royal Academy of Arts. She sent a photograph to Christie’s and the work was deemed to indeed be by Moser. Its value was said to be at least £1,000 (about $1,550).

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller old photograph
Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller old photograph by Antonio Marín Segovia (CC BY-NC-ND)

Family Find

Kent Shrewsbury and his son, Kenneth Solis, stopped by a Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Anaheim, California, back in 2016. The family had a thrifting tradition, and this time Solis came across a stack of black-and-white photographs in a bin otherwise filled with record albums. Shrewsbury identified the dancing couple in one photo as Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. The shoppers bought all 23 photos, at $1 each. The signed images proved to be gelatin silver prints, perhaps originals by famous 20th-century photographers. An “Antiques Roadshow” taping in Palm Springs gave the family some good news: The images brought to the show were worth $24,000 to $36,000.

Vintage Ralph Lauren Cardigan
Vintage Ralph Lauren Cardigan by Robert Sheie (CC BY)

Lombardi Sweatshirt

In 2015, CBS Sports chronicled the excitement of a North Carolina couple’s unearthing of a valuable sports memorabilia find: “The couple who paid 58 cents at a thrift store for a West Point sweater had no idea it once belonged to legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi. On Saturday, it sold for $43,020 in an auction.” The report detailed the 2014 find by Sean and Rikki McEvoy of Asheville, sellers of vintage clothing who scored the sweater as part of a bulk purchase at their local Goodwill store and who only later saw the Lombardi name tag after watching a documentary on the football legend.

Princess Diana Dress
Princess Diana Dress by Patrick Frauchiger (CC BY)

Princess Diana Dress

The late Princess Diana was admired for her fashion sense and her generosity, both of which were reflected in her donation of some of her chic ensembles to charity. That's how a silk dress worn to a state dinner in Bahrain in 1986 was purchased a few years later by an unnamed British woman in a charity shop in Herefordshire for £200. Designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, the dress sat in storage for two decades until a documentary on the Princess caused the owner to not only look at it again — but also sell it, fetching £156,000 in 2018 (about $208,000). As Hello magazine reported, “The seller only realised she had bought something special when she saw the dress while watching a recent documentary about the princess, and re-discovered it carefully folded in a box in the bottom of her wardrobe.” 

Related: 15 of the Most Expensive Clothing Items Ever Auctioned

Vintage wristwatches
Vintage wristwatches by Shane Lin (CC BY-NC)

Vintage Wristwatch

Knowledge is power. When Zachary Norris was rummaging through a box of old wristwatches at a Goodwill store in Phoenix in 2015, the lover of vintage timepieces knew he was onto something. Yes, it was a 1959 Jaeger-LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm watch, one of fewer than 1,000 made. Norris knew to promptly pay the $5.99 price, and he went on to sell the authenticated find via a watch collectors’ site for a cool $35,000 (plus a less valuable watch as a bonus).

Vintage handbag antique thrift
Vintage handbag antique thrift by Lenore Edman (CC BY)

Elvis Handbag

When Elvis Presley looks at you, you respond. That’s what happened in 2012 when Brit John Richard came “face to face” with the iconic singer — well, his likeness on the side of a handbag — at an Oxfam charity store in Kingston, England. Richard purchased the bag for what would be around $30 and would go on to find out it was produced by Irish designer Philip Treacy. Richard visited one of the designer’s shops in London and found out it was the result of the milliner’s collaboration with Andy Warhol. It was one of 10 made — and worth the equivalent of nearly $450,000.

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