20 Amazingly Valuable Thrift Store Finds
Thrift stores are always a treasure trove of vintage clothing items, posters of kittens, and old kitchen appliances—but sometimes a lucky shopper comes across an actual treasure.
1. A BEN NICHOLSON SCREEN PRINT
In November 2014, Jo Heaven was browsing her local “charity shop”—the British term for thrift stores that raise money for philanthropic organizations—in Swindon, England, when she came across a landscape print with stylized livestock. Liking the “quirky” screen print, she snapped it up for 99 pence (just over $1), and it was only once she got it to the car that Heaven noticed a note of provenance on the back, naming the artist as Ben Nicholson, the influential British modernist.
“My mum was an art teacher, so I’d vaguely heard of Ben Nicholson,” Heaven later told the BBC. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I found here?’” The screen print turned out to be one of a set of four made from a single piece of cloth in 1938; another print from the set is in the collection of London's Victoria and Albert Museum. After having the print authenticated by the art experts at Bonhams, Heaven sold it through the auction house for £4,200 (about $5500). She donated 10 percent of the proceeds to the charity shop where she bought the artwork, and invested the rest of the money to a charity she runs called Empower, which supports development projects in the Gambia. “I didn’t earn this money so it seems only right to benefit others rather than gain myself,” Heaven told the Swindon Advertiser.
2. VINCE LOMBARDI’S SWEATER
On a June afternoon in 2014, Sean and Rikki McEvoy were rifling through the bins at a Goodwill store in Asheville, North Carolina, looking for items they could resell through their vintage clothing business. Sean saw an old sweater with “West Point” emblazoned across the front. Thinking it looked like a vintage basketball warm-up, he tossed the sweater in their pile of goods, which they paid for by weight—58 cents a pound. Five months later, he was watching a documentary about Vince Lombardi, the famed coach of the Green Bay Packers, when a black-and-white photo flashed on the screen. The picture featured a young Lombardi during his 1949–1953 tenure as an assistant coach for Army’s football team, wearing a West Point sweater that looked rather familiar. And Rikki had noticed just the night before that the sweater had a name tag sewn into the neck. “It wasn’t Lombardi, was it?” her husband asked. “Yes, it’s Lombardi,” she replied. Sean nearly passed out.
Sean called the NFL Hall of Fame, and when he told them of his find, they tried to convince him to donate it to them—for free. The McEvoys passed, and in February 2015, they sold the sweater to an anonymous collector for $43,020 at a New York City auction of sports memorabilia.
But how did Lombardi’s sweater end up at the Asheville Goodwill in the first place? It was donated by Ann Wannamaker, whose late husband, Bill Wannamaker, had coached with Lombardi at West Point for a single season in 1952 and somehow ended up with the sweater. More than 60 years later, Ann was cleaning out her house and tossed the sweater into a pile of items to donate, leading to a very lucky find for the McEvoys. “It’s like winning the lottery,” Sean said.
3. A FLEMISH-SCHOOL PAINTING
In late 2010, a South Carolina man was browsing his local Goodwill when he noticed an oil painting in an antique frame—a still life of a dinner table. “I figured the oil painting was out of the 1800s because of the frame it was in,” said the man, who used his middle name, Leroy, in the press to maintain his privacy.
A former antiques dealer, Leroy thought the painting might be worth a “couple of hundred” dollars, so he bought it for $3. About a year later, his daughter took it to be appraised on Antiques Roadshow, whose appraisers offered an initial estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. That’s no chump change, but the painting turned out to be worth even more than that. Painted around 1650 by a Flemish school in Amsterdam, the still life sold for $190,000 in March 2012 through an auction house in Massachusetts. Leroy told reporters that he planned to split the money with his son and daughter-in-law. “It’s the biggest find I’ve ever had,” he said.
4. A PICASSO PRINT
In early 2012, Zach Bodish, an avid thrifter, was tracing his usual route through the Volunteers of America store in Clintonville, Ohio, looking for items to fix up and sell, when he came across a framed poster for a 1958 Picasso exhibition. Penciled in the lower left corner was the notation “6/100,” suggesting that the print was a numbered edition. Scrawled on the back were a few lines in French, which Bodish couldn’t read, though the word “originale” looked promising.
Bodish shelled out $14.14 for the poster and frame, and once he got home, he started Googling. He soon realized he had gotten his hands on a linocut poster created by Picasso for an exhibition of his ceramics in the French village of Vallauris in 1958, of which only 100 had been produced. And as for that writing on the back, it meant, “original print, signed proof.” A faded red scribble in the corner of the print was Picasso’s signature. “I started shaking a little bit,” Bodish recalled. The poster he had found was not only a limited edition, but an artist’s proof, one of a batch of initial prints that are approved by the artist before printing the other copies for the series. “You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Bodish wrote on his blog. He initially thought the poster might be worth $3000 to $4000, but after having the print authenticated, he sold it for $7000 in a private sale.
After an article in The Columbus Dispatch highlighted Bodish’s thrift shop discovery, a retired English teacher from Columbus named Ed Zettler contacted the paper, saying he was the one who had donated the print, which he thought was simply a reproduction. According to Zettler, a friend had given him the Picasso print as a housewarming gift in the 1960s, and it had sat in his basement for decades before he decided to donate it while clearing out his house. But Zettler had no hard feelings toward Bodish, telling Today, “That’s the risk you take when you bring something to the thrift store.”
5. AN ILYA BOLOTOWSKY PAINTING
When Beth Feeback first saw the big red abstract painting, she didn’t like it. Still, she ended up paying $9.99 for it at the Goodwill in Oak Ridge, North Carolina, because she hoped to reuse the canvas for one of her own paintings, which featured cartoonish cats. Luckily, a friend suggested that Feeback check the labels on the back, leading her to Google the name Ilya Bolotowsky and discover that he was a celebrated abstract painter who had fled Russia for the U.S. as a teenager—a painter whose works command prices upwards of $15,000. Though she originally found the painting unappealing, once she learned its value, Feeback quipped, “This is the most beautiful damned painting I’ve ever seen in my life.” She soon sold the painting, called Vertical Diamond, through Sotheby’s for $34,375, a price that includes an unspecified buyer’s premium (the final gavel price for the painting itself was about $27,000).
So how did this painting by a Russian émigré end up at a Goodwill in North Carolina? On the back of Vertical Diamond, a sticker reading Weatherspoon Art Gallery provided a clue. The registrar at the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro looked for traces of the painting in museum records and found that Burlington Industries, a North Carolina fabric manufacturer, had loaned the painting to the Weatherspoon for a 1979 show. Burlington Industries presumably sold the painting at some point, or it may have floated around after the company filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and moved out of its headquarters, dispersing much of its art collection. But regardless of how the painting found its way to Goodwill, Feeback was very glad it did.
6. A CHINESE LIBATION CUP
A few years ago, a shopper in a Sydney op shop (“op shop” or “opportunity shop” is the Australian term for thrift store) found an interesting carved cup in the shape of a flower and spent $4 to take it home. The man later experienced quite the windfall when it turned out his purchase was a 17th-century Chinese “libation cup” made from a rhinoceros horn. He sold it through Sotheby’s [PDF] in June 2013 for $75,640.
7. A JAEGER-LECOULTRE WATCH
When Zach Norris saw a diving watch marked LeCoultre at a Phoenix Goodwill in January 2015, he knew he’d come across something valuable—and he didn’t want to let it go. Produced by the Swiss luxury watch brand Jaeger-LeCoultre, whose modern timepieces sell for thousands of dollars, this vintage watch was tagged just $5.99. “I didn’t even want to give it to [the cashier] to scan,” Norris told KTVK. “I was like, you can scan it in my hand if you want to.” Though he knew vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre diving watches were worth thousands to collectors, Norris soon discovered that his watch was particularly special, a model called LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm. Produced beginning in 1959, the model was one of the first watches with an alarm for divers to use, and less than 1000 of them were ever made.
Norris had the watch authenticated by a local Jaeger-LeCoultre dealer, and after a website for watch collectors called HODINKEE highlighted Norris’s find, he was flooded with questions and offers to buy it. Norris accepted an offer from Eric Ku, a San Francisco-based vintage Rolex dealer and watch enthusiast, for $35,000—plus an Omega Speedmaster Professional worth $4000 (a watch Norris had long desired). In addition to donating a portion of his profits back to Goodwill, Norris earmarked a good chunk of his earnings to pay for his wedding the following fall.
8. AN 1823 EDITION OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
In March 2006, a music equipment technician named Michael Sparks was looking through the Music City Thrift Shop in Nashville, Tennessee, when he noticed a rolled-up, yellowed document—a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Sparks happily bought the document for $2.48. “I’ve seen Declarations of Independence in thrift stores before,” Sparks later said. “This one was so beautiful I thought it was an engraving.”
When he examined the paper further upon getting home, he noticed that it was marked 1823, and that it said “by order of the government.” Sparks soon learned that his thrift store purchase was an “official” copy of the Declaration, one of 200 commissioned by President John Quincy Adams in 1820 and printed by William Stone three years later. Only 35 such copies had previously been found. Sparks’s Declaration had been shellacked, and the varnish kept the ink dark, making his document one of the best preserved of its kind. Sparks sold the 1823 Declaration through Raynors’ Historical Collectible Auctions in 2007. The winning bid? $477,650.
It turns out the Declaration had been donated to the Nashville thrift shop by locals Stan and Linda Caffy. Stan had bought the document at a yard sale in the mid-1990s for around $2, then hung it for decoration in his garage where he works on bicycles. His wife urged him to get rid of it, and other items, when the couple was cleaning out their garage in 2006. “I’m happy for the Sparks guy,” Stan Caffy told USA Today. “If I still had it, it would still be hanging here in the garage and I still wouldn't know it was worth all that.”
9. A GIOVANNI BATTISTA TORRIGLIA PAINTING
In late 2012, a Goodwill employee in Manassas, Virginia, named Maria Rivera discovered a small portrait in the store’s donation bin. Depicting an elderly woman holding a cup of tea, the oil painting had cracks in its surface and was housed in an ornate gold frame. The painting reminded Rivera of something she’d seen in a museum, so she pulled it from the pile, thinking it seemed potentially valuable. “I didn’t know how much at that time, but I said, we have some money here,” she told NBC News4. A lot of money, it turns out. The painting was authenticated as the work of 19th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Torriglia. Goodwill auctioned off the portrait on its website in January 2013. It earned a winning bid of $11,205.
10. AN ALEXANDER CALDER PAINTING
When Karen Mallet saw a lithograph with the signature “Calder” while shopping at a Goodwill outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she didn’t want to get her hopes up. She recognized the name of Alexander Calder—a celebrated American sculptor, painter, and printmaker—and decided she had to buy the print, just in case it was an original. “I thought, I don't know if it’s real or not but it’s $12.99. I’ve wasted more on worse things,” she told the Associated Press.
Her Goodwill loyalty card brought the price down to $12.34, which Mallet forked over happily. Then, when she got home, Mallet started Googling. She quickly found pictures of numerous works by Calder in the same style (a similar painting, the basis for a set of lithographs, is in the collection of MoMA in Manhattan). Soon Mallet felt confident enough to take her Goodwill purchase to an expert for authentication. Jacob Fine Art Inc., in suburban Chicago, verified that the print was an original 1969 Calder lithograph called Red Nose, number 55 of 75 such lithographs. The appraisers set the replacement value at $9000, but Mallet told reporters in late 2012 that she has no plans to sell the print. While she didn’t connect to the piece originally, “It grew on me,” she said. “Now I love it.”
11. A PHILIP TREACY HANDBAG
In February 2012, John Richard was browsing at an Oxfam charity shop in London when he opened a dusty box and discovered an eye-catching handbag. The 73-year-old retired chef was intrigued by the bag’s print—images of Elvis Presley by Andy Warhol rendered in shades of brown—and decided to take it home, though he balked momentarily at the listed price of £20 (about $26). He tried to haggle the cashier down to £15 but decided to make the splurge when she refused to budge. Still, he put the bag aside once he got home and didn’t think about it for several months.
Remembering the bag later that year, Richard examined it and noticed a Philip Treacy label. Treacy is an Irish designer best known for making sculptural hats, including the one Princess Beatrice wore (to much mockery) to the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. A luxury designer handbag—might it be worth some money? Richard contacted the Philip Treacy shop in London and asked them to examine the bag. Store manager Gee Brunet confirmed that it was a hand-sewn, limited-edition Treacy design, of which only 10 were ever made. “It’s a piece of art, not a bag,” Brunet said.
Richard had the handbag appraised at £350,000, and he told reporters that he’d received two offers, for £250,000 ($325,000) and £350,000 ($455,000), from buyers in China. “I’m rather glad I didn’t put it back now,” Richard told the Daily Express.
12. A STADIUM EVENTS VIDEO GAME CARTRIDGE
On a spring day in 2013, Jennifer Thompson was perusing the $1 DVD section of a Goodwill store in Charlotte, North Carolina, when she noticed a video game sitting behind the glass counter. Tagged for $7.99, it was an NES cartridge for Stadium Events—a name that reminded Thompson of a Yahoo! article she’d read about the rarest and most sought-after games. She drove across the street to use the Wi-Fi at McDonald’s and confirmed her intuition: Stadium Events was a highly-coveted game that sold for thousands of dollars. Returning to Goodwill, Thompson purchased the cartridge, praying the cashier wouldn’t notice the golden egg he was letting go, then she drove to a local used video game store to test the desirability of her latest purchase.
She showed Wilder Hamm, the owner of Save Point Video Games in Charlotte, a few common games she said she wanted to sell, before revealing Stadium Events at the bottom of the pile. “Oh my God!” Hamm blurted out. “Normally in this business, we try not to show our cards,” Hamm explained later, but Thompson had surprised him and he couldn’t hide his excitement. “I felt honored just to hold it,” he told Kotaku.
Thompson auctioned off Stadium Events through the website GameGavel.com, ultimately selling the game to an orthodontist from Bedford, Indiana, for $25,000.
13. A VALUABLE DOG LITHOGRAPH
In March 2015, Floridian Maureen Flaherty attended the grand opening of a local Goodwill store, where she noticed a large lithograph print of a dog hanging on the wall. Two cashiers took the print down and Flaherty handed over $44 for it—adding a 50-cent donation to the listed price of $43.50. But Flaherty hadn’t even made it to her car when a local antiques dealer flagged her down in the parking lot. He told her, “You just walked out with the most valuable thing in there,” and tried to buy the print, but Flaherty declined his offer because she “just loved it” and wanted to keep the lithograph for herself. But the antiques dealer’s offer had piqued her curiosity, and when she got home, Flaherty did some internet research and realized that she’d just bought a print of a 1911 Alexander Pope painting called The Brook Hill Dog, which had been distributed to bars as advertising for distillery brand Friedman, Keiler & Co.’s “Brook Hill” whiskey.
Learning that a similar print had recently been sold for $3300, Flaherty decided to auction off her find for charity. “I foster dogs so I had the idea that since it’s a dog print, let’s auction it off so half the funds will go to a dog fund,” Flaherty told ABC News. The lithograph sold on eBay for $5150 and Flaherty donated half her earnings to a local animal rescue. She kept the remaining money to fund a book she was writing about fostering dogs, which came out the following year.
14. AN 18TH-CENTURY CHINESE CENSER
A woman from Surrey, England, discovered a colorful, gold-rimmed bowl while exploring a charity shop in Somerset. The metal bowl turned out to be an 18th-century Chinese censer, or incense bowl, produced during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. Created using a technique called cloisonné, the censer is decorated with a scrolling lotus pattern against a turquoise background. Appraisers at the John Nicholson’s auction house estimated the censer’s value at £5000 to £8000 (about $6500 to $10,000)—quite an upgrade from the £2 charged by the charity shop. But the sharp-eyed thrifter who scored the item earned an even greater payday when John Nicholson’s included the bowl in their “Oriental Auction” in March 2017. Only 4.4-inches wide, the censer sold for £21,000 (about $27,000).
15. AN EDOUARD LÉON CORTÈS PAINTING
Workers at a Goodwill in Easton, Maryland, were sorting through donations in March 2008 when they unearthed a painting depicting a street scene of a flower market. Done in an Impressionist style, it seemed to be an original oil painting, not a print, and when store manager Terri Tonelli returned from her vacation, the employees told her they suspected the artwork was valuable. Thanks to Google, Tonelli figured out it was likely the work of noted French Impressionist Edouard Léon Cortès, who produced a number of paintings of flower markets. Goodwill shipped the painting to Sotheby’s auction house in New York, where it was authenticated, cleaned, and auctioned off. “It could have very easily ended up put in a pile, marked for $20,” Goodwill’s regional marketing director told the Associated Press. Instead, Goodwill sold the painting, called Marche aux fleurs, for $40,600.
16. AN AUGUSTA NATIONAL GREEN JACKET
In 1994, a sports journalist noticed a green blazer in a stack of used suit jackets at a Toronto thrift store. When he unearthed the green blazer, he immediately recognized the patch on the pocket: the logo of the Augusta National Golf Club. While all members of the Georgia club get such jackets, nowadays they are only allowed to wear them at the club (though they were allowed to take them home in the 1950s and 1960s); the only person who can sport the green blazer outside club grounds is the current Masters champion.
Since 1949, the winner of the Masters Tournament—which is one of the most prestigious competitions in professional golf and is held each year at Augusta—receives one of the club’s famous green jackets as a trophy. One of the most coveted golf memorabilia items for collectors, this thrift store jacket was priced at $5. The journalist snapped it up on the spot. While he later tried to trace the provenance of his purchase, the Augusta National Golf Club refused to help. The tag dates the jacket to the 1950s (but before 1957), and otherwise little is known about the blazer’s origin—the name tag had been cut out.
Soon a British golf journalist named Dominic Pedler had convinced the lucky thrifter to sell him the jacket with “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” Then, over 20 years later, the jacket went up for auction in April 2017, garnering lots of media attention, as well as a final bid of $139,349.
17. A MARY MOSER PAINTING
In 2013, Liz Lockyer stopped into the Royal National Lifeboat Institution charity shop in her hometown of Teignmouth on England’s southern shore. She noticed a still life painting of flowers housed in an ornate gold frame. An artist herself, Lockyer thought the antique frame would be perfect for her own work, so she plunked down £5 (about $6.50) to take home the set. It was only later that she realized the painting was something special when she examined the signature.
The painting was by Mary Moser, a celebrated 18th-century English painter and one of only two female founders of the Royal Academy of Arts. Moser was known for her lush depictions of flowers, and the auction house Christie’s confirmed that Lockyer’s thrift store find was indeed one of Moser’s still lifes. The painting is worth at least £1000 (about $1300). “There was a definite risk I was going to rip out the painting and keep the frame,” Lockyer said. “I’m very glad I didn’t, but it’s one of those things—you had to look at it closely.”
18. PHOTOS BY FAMOUS MID-CENTURY PHOTOGRAPHERS
One day in 2016, Kent Shrewsbury stopped by the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Anaheim, California, with his son, 20-year-old Kenneth Solis. As Shrewsbury wandered the store, Solis went directly to the records. While flipping through the vinyl, he discovered a stack of black-and-white photos between two records. One showed a dog with a giant stick. Another was an artistic nude of a pregnant woman. A third showed a couple dancing. There were 20 others. Solis grabbed the photos and took them over to his dad, who recognized the dancing couple as Marilyn Monroe and her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller. Solis and Shrewsbury purchased the photographs for $23—$1 apiece. Shrewsbury then went about deciphering the signatures on the pictures and Googling the names. That’s when he realized they’d found something more than random antique snaps: the prints seemed to be from famous 20th-century photographers including Eve Arnold, Burk Uzzle, and Elliot Erwitt. The images were gelatin silver prints (a photo process introduced in the 1870s that remained popular with fine art photographers through the 1960s), so maybe they were originals.
A few months later, Shrewsbury took five of the photos to an Antiques Roadshow taping in Palm Springs, where he showed them to appraiser Aimee Pflieger, a photography specialist at Sotheby’s. She authenticated the prints, calling them a “fantastic find.” She estimated the combined value of the five photos as $24,000 to $36,000. Shrewsbury and Solis hope to sell the photos and use a portion of the money to buy Solis a car, with the rest going to Habitat for Humanity of Orange County as a donation.
19. A FRANK WESTON BENSON PAINTING
In 2006, an anonymous donor dropped off a watercolor at a Goodwill store in Portland, Oregon. Employees thought the painting of a couple paddling a canoe looked like an original rather than a print, and its Impressionist style was eye-catching. Goodwill put the painting up for auction on its website with a starting bid of $10, but offers soon spiked when local gallery owner Matthew W. Gerber determined that the watercolor was, in fact, an original work by celebrated American Impressionist Frank Weston Benson.
Benson’s work hangs in museums like the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and commands prices of as much as $100,000. “Frank Benson is a top-tier impressionist,” Gerber told The Oregonian. “When they put this up, they didn’t have a clue what it was.” A Goodwill spokeswoman suggested that the donor also likely did not know the painting’s value. And that value turned out to be considerable. The winning bid? $165,002.
20. A CHINESE POT
The wooden pot was cracked all over, and its rim and base had been reattached with glue that oozed out and hardened. Sections of the pot were discolored, and it had been donated in a grocery bag alongside various household items. And yet somehow, an employee at St. Peter's Hospice charity shop in Bristol, England, recognized that the pot, which looked very old, might be culturally valuable. In fact, it was a bamboo pot meant for calligraphy brushes that was carved between 1662 and 1722 by the important Chinese artist Gu Jue. Experts believe the pot depicts the poem “The Agreeable Life in a Land of Transcendents” and features the philosopher Lao Tzu sitting on an ox, as well as other figures. The pot generated considerable interest from collectors and ultimately went to a buyer in Hong Kong for £360,000 (about $470,000).