Published on March 12, 2021

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Photography by Oralleff/Getty Images

Ah, summer: a time for running under the sprinkler, going for ice cream, and perusing card tables full of old blenders at your local garage sales. Those willing to sift through picture frames and souvenir Mickey Mouse plates can still find some true gems—just last month a man bought a $35 bowl from a Connecticut yard sale that was later found to be a Chinese artifact valued at $500,000. Just because one person is getting rid of an item doesn’t mean it won’t be worth something to the right collector. Here’s how to search more efficiently at your next roadside antiques stop to find pieces that can bring in some serious money.

Do Your Research

The people selling mid-century modern chairs may have bought them in the actual mid-century, when they were just called chairs. It’s not uncommon for authentic Eames shells or Saarinen-crafted Tulip designs to pop up at garage sales, but you’ll see plenty of dupes, too. Knowing how to tell the difference is as simple as digging up what the factory stamps look like for any specific models. When you’re examining the model in the driveway, does it have the correct amount of digits in the serial number? Is the stamp in the right place? Bringing a magnifying glass can help you get up close to inspect the worn-down markings. It’s worth getting some awkward stares for the potential reward of the real deal. 

Nonfunctional Finds Still Have Value

A broken item could possibly be the best score of all. Buying an out-of-whack grandfather clock for a third of its price—poor condition is a good bargaining tool for arguing down the cost—and then spending another chunk of money to repair it could still cost less than buying one in perfect condition. (Or don’t fix it at all; your phone has a clock.) Of course, this plan doesn’t work for broken appliances. The coolest Dieter Rams–designed electric shaver is probably a goner if it’s not turning on.

Show Up Strategically

Finding a hidden gem requires getting there at the right time. It’s true that the early bird gets the worm (and access to any obvious finds without the masses there), but showing up at the end of the day has advantages, too. Before the sellers close up shop, they’re more likely to part with things for pennies on the dollar rather than take them back into their homes. Think you’ve found a winner? There are appraisers ready to help evaluate any kind of collectible. Contact the American Society of Appraisers to find a certified representative in your area or to send photos to. Good luck and happy hunting!

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