We’ve all heard the stories about naive shoppers buying unique works of art at estate sales and then hawking them for millions at auction. (If you know me, you know I call this “Finding the Pollock.”) But what are the chances this will ever happen to you? Or me? Or any of us?
Probably better than you think.
Of course it’s unlikely you’ll unearth a Pollock at a thrift store. Those million-dollar stories are a little bit like winning the lottery. But if you’re hitting estate sales all the time, you’ve probably either purchased or passed up something that was worth way more than it was priced. You may not find a $4.5 million painting, but you could find a $6,000 one. Or a $22,000 vase. Or just a $450 print you paid $2 for. (Read more stories about stellar thrift finds here and here.)
But if you’re not making a career of relentlessly scouring Antique Trader for news on potential diamonds in the rough, how do you find those dramatically underpriced gems amidst the garbage? If you’re not a collector or an appraiser, how do you know what you’re looking at?
Practice, practice, practice.
This winter I had the idea that I wanted to start selling clothing in addition to housewares in my shop, BackGarage. I was going to thrift stores all the time anyway — and there are so many more clothes than there are housewares! How hard could it be?
It was hard. I’d never looked at clothes before. I didn’t know my head from my behind when it came to age, labels, construction, or value. But after looking at a couple hundred garments with a curative eye, I started to pay attention to things. I noticed labels that ripped off old looks, selling new stuff that looked vintage. I noticed vintage stuff that wasn’t constructed well. Vintage stuff that was common. And slowly, after talking with dealers and collectors, looking at what they sold and taking that experience back to the thrift stores, I started to notice the good stuff.
I’m not a clothing dealer, but after a few weeks of trying to think like one, I was starting to see what they see. I’m not selling vintage clothing in my shop, nor am I trying to anymore, because I just don’t have the passion about clothes that I have about vintage housewares. But I feel like I had to do this experiment so I could start to see clothes the way I see housewares and furniture. Seeing good work amidst a sea of cast-offs takes practice. It takes frequency and dedication. But the payoff can be awesome.
Developing your eye.
If you want to start seeking out valuable stuff, start with the stuff you like. Art? Photography? Music? Ceramics? Quilts? Search eBay to see what’s out there. Check out auction catalogs and results. Watch Antiques Roadshow. But aside from that, don’t worry about too much preliminary research.
Just trust your developing eye. (And your gut. It’s also in the gut.) Start watching for these characteristics in the things you find:
Uniqueness. Have you seen it before? (You’ll get better at this the more you look for things, and this is possibly the most important question out there.) Does it look like it was mass-produced? The more of the same thing that’s out there, generally, the less it’s worth.
Quality. Is it well-made or does it feel flimsy? Does it look like quality work, or amateur? (If you’re into outsider art I don’t even know where to set the dial on this one.) How is the workmanship? Think back to art school! Use of space, etc.? You should learn to be an on-the-spot art critic.
Context. Where did you find it? Where are you? Are you at an estate sale with lots of fine art? Are you at a junky thrift shop? Auction? Is this an item that slipped through the cracks? Are you in an area where many of these things might be available? Think about the origin of what you’re looking at, what you think it might be, and how it might have arrived where it is. (For instance, if you’re in a small thrift shop in the home town of a famous artist — or his secret lover — then yes, it could be that artist’s painting. Right?)
Price. Taking price into account can be a double-edged sword. Remember that price and value are two different things. But also keep in mind that estate sale ladies, auctioneers, and thrift store managers have some idea of the value of things and therefore price quality stuff higher. A $50 quilt in a sea of $5 quilts might actually be a $2,000 quilt in a sea of $5 quilts. You get me?
Do your research
If you find something you think has value, do your research. Sit on it. Ask people — lots of people. Don’t sell it until you’re sure. (I’m really bad at this, by the way.) Stay tuned for tips on how to ID fancy things, and in the meantime, good luck out there! Don’t be afraid to get your fingernails dirty! The Pollock is out there!