Treasure Detectives

Junk-store jackpots

Are You Savvy Enough to Discover Tag Sale Treasure?

Claudio Arnese | E+ | Getty Images

Some of the best collectible stories feature an average citizen discovering they have a rare treasure hidden away in a dusty box or barn. But there's a similar type of story that isn't so happy for all parties involved—people who owned something valuable but didn't realize its worth and donated it to a thrift store or sold it for a few coins.

That's what happened with the examples in the following slides, which cost their finders only 75 cents – $100, while their values range from around $5,000 – $2.22 million dollars and in the case of those that haven't yet sold, possibly much higher. Sometimes the seller on the wrong end of such treasure trades mercifully remains none the wiser, but in the few cases where their reactions were known are included here. And one finder of what she believes is a lost work by an iconic 20th century painter turned down an offer that was 180 million percent increase over her $5 investment.

These found fortunes were windfalls for those lucky enough to buy them at tag sales, garage sales, and thrift stores. But it isn't only luck—it takes an eye. Would you have known all of the following items, each one purchased for a pittance, were so valuable?

By Colleen Kane
Posted 27 March 2013

Declaration of Independence

Getty Images

Purchase price: $2.48

Value: $481,750

When Michael Sparks bought a rolled-up, varnished old copy of the Declaration of Independence at a thrift store in 2006, he didn't yet know it was the real thing, one of just 200 original copies. When word reached the news that an authentic First Printing of the Declaration of Independence surfaced at a Nashville thrift store, Stan Caffy emailed The Tennessean, identifying himself as "the idiot who donated the Declaration you wrote about." Caffy had had the document hanging in his garage for years until marrying and merging households with his new wife.

Adding to the parchment's legacy of missed opportunities, Caffy told the paper he bought it from a yard sale about ten years earlier, for an amount he said was probably about the same as Sparks paid for it.

The conserved 184 year-old document, varnish removed and still with its dark ink intact, sold at auction in 2007 for $481,750 with Raynors' Historical Collectible Auctions in Burlington, North Carolina. "I'm happy for the Sparks guy," Stan told The Tennessean. "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."

Chinese Ding Bowl

Source: Sotheby's

Purchase price: $3

Value: $2.25 million

A $3 garage sale purchase made headlines this month when it sold at auction with Sotheby's in New York for $2.22 million. The ceramic bowl, just over five inches in diameter, is decorated with leafy lotus sprays inside, and the exterior has overlapping vertical leaves. Turns out that bowl was a rare and important 1,000 year old 'Ding' bowl from China's Northern Song Dynasty. Ding is a county in the Hebei province known to produce china ranking among the "five great wares" of the Song Dynasty.

The seller picked up the bowl at a 2007 tag sale in New York and displayed it for a few years before investigating its origins. When asked whether sellers are advised to remain tight-lipped on details of where they got their finds, a spokesman for Sotheby's declined to comment, citing discretion and client confidentiality.

Rare Velvet Underground Disc


Purchase price: $0.75

Value: $25,000

In 2002, Montreal record collector Warren Hill paid less than a dollar at a Chelsea, New York sidewalk sale for a plain acetate disc in a cardboard sleeve, with its label marked "Velvet Underground". Investigation revealed the 40 year old record was one of their earliest recordings, a demo of their first album which Columbia Records rejected, and is possibly the only copy to survive.

In 2006, Hill's discovery was on its way to becoming one of the most lucrative records to ever sell at auction, when the price on his eBay listing climbed to about $155,000. However, the first auction was a bust when the high bidder didn't come through. Still, the approximately 25 grand he brought in with the second auction was not a shabby return on a .75 investment.

Moral of the story: if you find a mysterious old record in Chelsea by a famous band that used to hang around Chelsea, it might be well worth throwing down the three quarters. The disc's different mixes of the familiar tracks can be heard on WFMU's Beware of the Blog.

Jackson Pollock Painting

Source: Warner Bros.

Purchase price: $5

Value: see below

In the early 1990s, former long haul trucker Teri Horton found a modern, color-drizzled painting at a thrift store for $5. She had no idea who Jackson Pollock was until an art teacher hipped her to what she might have found. But was her painting really a Pollock? Thus an art controversy was born.

Forensics experts, friends of the artist, and art dealers got involved in trying to verify this painting, and Horton's story was told in the 2006 documentary, "Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?"

Horton turned down an offer of $9 million from a Saudi Arabian buyer, which the New York Times noted was a 180 million percent increase on her investment. She told the Times she holding out for $50 million, adding, "Before I let them take advantage of me, I'll burn that son of a bitch."

Lost Charlie Chaplin Film

Source: Keystone studios

Purchase price: about $4.84

Value: see below

Morace Park paid less than five dollars for an eBay auction labeled as an "old film," because he fancied the look of the canister. According to The Guardian, he didn't even open the package right away. But when he did, the 35 millimeter reel of nitrate film was labeled "Charlie Chaplin in 'Zepped'"—a seven minute 1917 propaganda film that was then unknown and catalogued.

Just how original or legit this lost film is has been debated, as it seems to be made up of outtakes spliced with shots of Zepplins and animation. Chaplin biographer David Robinson estimated the value at 3,000 to 40,000 pounds (approx. $4,500 - $60,000). It went up for auction with Bonham's in 2011 for approximately $150,000, but did not sell.

In 2011, an unemployed man named Brian Hann purchased another copy of the movie for "a few quid" in a box of junk from a charity shop. The owner of Second Time Around shop, Lindsey Whitey, told the Shields Gazette, "I can't believe it. It looks like I will never be a millionaire, but good luck to him. I hope he gets a lot of money for it. I'm no expert on film, I think it was in a box with a load of other stuff. This place is like an Aladdin's Cave."

Precious Works of Art

Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images

Purchase price: various

Value: various

Did you hear the one about the tiny Renoir purchased for seven dollars at a Virginia flea market? The auction was canceled when it was learned it was stolen from a museum.

But what about the one about the Warhol sketch worth $2 million that was found for $5 at a garage sale?

How about that $14 thrift store Picasso print that sold to a private buyer for $7,000?

And redefining "Goodwill hunting"—all of these scores happened in the past year or so: the $10 Goodwill painting by Russian abstract artist Ilya Bolotowsky valued at around $20,000; the Salvador Dali etching spotted by an eagle-eyed Goodwill employee then auctioned for $21,000, and the $3 Goodwill purchase that turned out to be a 17th century painter of the Flemish school and sold at auction for $190,000.

Treasure Detectives

"Treasure Detectives," a one-hour weekly show featuring world-renowned fakes and forgeries detective, Curtis Dowling, and his team of investigators who dig into the history of potentially counterfeit items using high tech science.

In each episode, the "Treasure Detectives" team will meet collectors and verify the authenticity of collectibles, artwork and antiquities using innovative technology and street smarts to determine whether they're sophisticated forgeries or extremely valuable collectors' items…answers that could cost or earn owners a small fortune. They trace not just where an item came from, but how it was made…and in many cases, how it was faked.