12 of the Rarest and Most Valuable Thrift Store Finds

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If you’re anything like me, you probably think you find rare and valuable items at Goodwill all the time. More often that not, though, it turns out to be a reproduction item from Pier 1 with fake patina.

However, some people have gotten truly lucky. Like, found-something-worth-more-than-all-the-money-I’ll-make-in-my-life kind of lucky.

I doubt this will help me, you, or anything else get super lucky at a thrift store. It’s about as likely as getting struck by lighting after all. These will probably make you run to the thrift store out of FOMO though…

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: $477,650

We’ve all heard of the man who bought a $4 painting at a garage sale, found an original copy of the Declaration of Independence inside, and sold it for $2.4 million. A once-in-a-lifetime story, right? Not so much, actually.

Michael Sparks was visiting a Nashville thrift store, where he bought a candleholder, a set of salt and pepper shakers, and a yellowed print of the Declaration of Independence. Sparks figured the document was a worthless, modern reprint, so he paid the asking price — $2.48 — and headed home.

After looking over the document for a few days, he wondered if it might be older than he initially thought. So he hopped on the internet to do some research and soon realized he had purchased one of only 200 official copies of the Declaration of Independence commissioned by John Quincy Adams in 1820. Of those 200, 35 had been found intact; he had number 36.
It took a year for Sparks to have the print authenticated and preserved and then he put it up for auction, netting a final sale price of $477,650.

The salt and pepper shakers, on the other hand, were still worthless.

PHOTO OF BILLY THE KID: $5,000,000

A photo purchased for $2 at a Fresno shop has been described by a Western Americana expert as “the holy grail of photography.”

It is believed to be just the second photo ever seen of William H. Bonney. The infamous outlaw “Billy the Kid” is actually seen playing croquet in the picture. A historical find was not on Randy and Linda Guijarro’s mind when Randy browsed a Tower District junk store in 2010.

“These were just two cardboard boxes about this long about that high,” Guijarro said.

Three photos caught his eye. Two featured women but a voice in his head told him to take the dark tin type photo of a country scene.

A picture may be worth a thousand words but this one’s worth much more. It was recently authenticated by Western Americana expert Kagin’s Incorporated in Tiburon. Its value was set at $5 million.

LECOULTRE DEEP SEA ALARM WATCH: $35,000

For Zach Norris (not relative of Chuck as far as we know) the dream became a reality recently when he walked into a Phoenix, Arizona Goodwill store looking for a used push-pull golf cart.  He stopped by and dug through the store’s watch basket on his way out. The basket was filled with Fossil watches with dead batteries (surely overpriced).  But at the bottom was a watch, face down, that caught his interest. The dial said “LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm.” The price? $5.99.  It turns out that the watch, while not in perfect condition, was still rare enough to neck Zach a $34,994.01 profit!

VINCE LOMBARDI SWEATER: $43,020

Nothing like purchasing a ripped up sweater at Goodwill to brighten up the day. At least that’s what Sean and Rikki McEvoy thought when they visited their local Goodwill in Asheville, N.C back in 2014.  Personally, we would have purchased this awesome sweater just for it’s vintage class…and it probably would have been a very good flip!  However, seeing the name on the inside and after watching a Vince Lombardi television special where the coach was wearing the sweater, the couple decided to check out its authenticity. It turned out to be genuine and in February the sweater sold at auction for an insane $43,020.  What did they pay for it originally?  $0.58

VELVET UNDERGROUND RECORD: $25,000 (ON EBAY NONETHELESS!)

Warren Hill, a Montreal native, purchased this vinyl Velvet Underground album for 75-cents from a New York City sidewalk sale in 2002. Hill was excited at the mere prospect of enjoying the classic album.  He brain must have nearly exploded when he learned that this piece of vinyl was actually a rare EP demo that the group cut for Columbia Records in April of 1966!  What’s more, it was/is the only known copy of that recording session.  Hill posted the item on an eBay auction (7 or 10 day we don’t know…) with the final bid coming in at $25,000!  Not a bad return on his investment!

FLEMISH PAINTING FROM 1650: $190,000

Recently, an 81 year-old Massachusetts named only as “Leroy” was perusing his local Goodwill when a framed painting caught his eye. Leroy, who used to work as an antique dealer, had his attention caught not by the painting buy by its frame.  He estimated that the pictures was from the 1800’s and easily worth $50.  The frame, if from the same era could easily be worth $150!  He figured that it was worth the $3 investment and happily took the painting home.
Less than a year later, his son and his wife asked to take the painting to the Antiques Roadshow where it was appraised for around $25,000!  He was informed that the painting was actually from a Flemish school in Amsterdam and was painted circa 1650 (he was right about the frame’s age though).  Soon after, the painting went to auction where it blew away all predictions and sold for a whopping $190,000!

CHINESE LIBATION CUP: $80,000

In turns out that, in Australia, they love a good thrift bargain just as much as anyone else!  In 2013, an unnamed person  shopping at a local thrift store in Sydney came across a strange looking cup, and for $4 Australian dollars, purchased it. (We probably would have left it on the shelf….) He sent a picture to a specialist at Sotheby’s, who responded that it was likely a real 17th century Chinese “libation cup,”   That is, a cup used for an offering to a god or spirit, carved from rhinoceros horn. When it went to auction soon after, it sold for $75,640 Australian dollars (around $80,000 US at the time…)  But we still think it’s ugly….

ALEXANDER CALDER NECKLACE:  $267,750

Speaking of items we would have passed on, this one just might take the cake, especially in a flea market where it was found.  The lucky Philadelphia women who found it however thought it “bold” and simply had to have it.  About 3 years later she was visiting the Philadelphia Art Museum (was she wearing it for those three years?!) and came across some jewelry made by Alexander Calder which looked startingly similar to her purchase.  She quickly got in touch with the Calder Foundation in New York who confirmed that her piece was indeed genuine.  She put it up for auction at Christie’s  and in September 2013, the sale price of $267,750 was recorded.  And to think we were guessing a 14 year old girl made it in her school jewelry class….

FABERGE EGG: $30 MILLION

We would hate to be the person who sold this piece!  It was sold at a flea market to a scrap metal dealer for a paltry $14,000.  He had correctly identified it as gold and was going to melt it down for scrap.  What he did not realize however, was that it was one of the original Faberge Imperial Eggs.  Only 50 of these eggs were ever made and 43 are currently accounted for (so get out and get looking)!  Luckily, a friend intervened before this piece was melted and it was on public display for a time before quietly being moved into the realm of private collections.  Although the actual sale price remains undisclosed, it was appraised at over $30,000,000!  Just think about those eBay fees!

STADIUM EVENTS NINTENDO GAME: $35,100

The game Stadium Events designed for Nintendo NES in considered to be one of the rarest video games!  It is estimated that only 200 of them made it into the hands of consumers before the game was recalled and all the copies destroyed.  Why this happened we’re not sure, but we’re sure it was a delight to “Menaceone” of Black Diamond, Wash who got this game for free from work and turned around to sell it for $35,100 on eBay!

ANDY WARHOL SKETCH $2,000,000

This bedraggled paper was snagged by a lucky person as they looked through a Las Vegas yard sale in the summer of 2010.  The drawing is one of the earliest examples of Warhol’s work and is believed to be a sketch of then popular singer Rudy Vallee when Warhol was just 10 years old!  Although the piece has yet to go to auction, it is estimated that it will surpass $2,000,000 when it does!

Ansel Adams Photography Negatives $200,000,000+

Rick Norsigian worked at Yosemite National Park as a young man and so, when he saw a pair of glass art plates, he could scarcely pass them up.  The plates actually turned out to be photographic negatives and, after letting them sit for two years, Rick decided to find out where they came from.  After some research, he became convinced that they had actually been taken by the father of American photography himself, Ansel Adams.  Much to delight of collectors and photography buffs worldwide-he was right.  The photographs were taken between the years 1919 and 1930 and are considered the “missing link” in Adams’ career.  After the plates were authenticated, Rick was astounded to learn that they were valued in excess of $200,000,000.  Will he sell?  We would…

What should you do if you find something rare or valuable at Goodwill?

Pinch yourself and double check.

If you’ve found something that you think is legitimately valuable you should start off by doing some research. Do you best to authenticate it yourself. Your personal authentication won’t be worth much but, if you can figure out that it’s not worth anything, it will save you money down the road.

If you still think it’s valuable after some research you’re going to want to get it authenticated and appraised. Many auction-houses offer these services in the hopes that you’ll sell an item through them.

The majority of items above were sold through auction-houses. They have a much better reach and you’ll typically get a better return than trying to sell it yourself (even after they take their cut).

If you spend much time at thrift stores you’ll likely find items worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. Items at that level can readily be sold on eBay (which is in our wheelhouse). Check out some of our articles that show you what to look for at thrift stores and how to sell it on eBay! Good luck!

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2 thoughts on “12 of the Rarest and Most Valuable Thrift Store Finds”

  1. I have a silver trombone with beautiful etching on the bell, ornate braces, made in 1929. I learned it’s worth ten times what I paid, maybe more by now!

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