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How to tell if your yard sale find is really valuable

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Spring is here, which means yard-sale season is just about to kick off. Chances are, if you’re the type who likes going to yard sales, you’ve also seen those tantalizing episodes of Antiques Roadshow where someone brings on a chair they bought for 50 cents that turns out to be worth $50,000.

If you’re hoping to find a valuable treasure at a yard sale, here are a few tips that will help you tell whether that item you’re holding is a gem or just junk.

Think RADAR

No, not radio detection and ranging—Rarity, Aesthetics, Desirability, Authenticity and Really great condition. These are the factors that make something valuable, whether it’s an LP or a salt-and-pepper set. Of course, some of these—like aesthetics, authenticity, and condition—are easier to determine than others without extensive research, so focus on them in the short term instead of turning yourself in knots trying to find out whether something is rare or has a market with collectors.

Aesthetics doesn’t necessarily mean beauty, although it can. Rather, aesthetics can mean symmetry, elegant simplicity or, especially in the case of some types of porcelain and pottery, eye-gougingly over-the-top ugly exuberance. A piece with good aesthetics generally has well thought-out, finely executed elements and an attention to small details that are missing on less appealing pieces.

Authenticity can be tough to determine, but there are a few clues to help you figure out whether that chair is the real deal or a knock-off from Leon’s. For some pieces, like pottery, silver, and costume jewellery, look for a signature or a maker’s mark. These can let you know who made it and when—essential when you’re trying to determine rarity and desirability later.

The maker of a piece of furniture can be tough to determine, so look for signals that what’s caught your eye is old. These can include:

  • Thick, unevenly cut wood veneer (modern veneer is uniformly cut and tends to be thinner)
  • Use of traditional techniques, such as dove-tailed joints
  • Square nails
  • Screws with off-centre slots and threads of inconsistent widths
  • Lots of nail holes along chair rails, pointing to a long life of re-upholstering
  • Horse-hair stuffing
  • If a mirror is included, look for thin, wavy glass as a mark of age. To determine thinness, hold the tip of a pen up to the reflective surface—the closer the tip is to the surface of the glass, the thinner it is.

Generally, a piece with its original paint or upholstery is more valuable than one that’s been refinished.

Condition is one of the easiest ways to determine whether a piece is going to be valuable or not. Anything that’s in perfect condition—something that’s never been taken out of its package—will be more valuable than the same item that’s been taken out and handled. (Of course, there has to be a market for the item in the first place to make it a worthwhile purchase.)

As a rule of thumb, the less that’s been done to an item, the better. So refinishing, repairs and re-upholstery can all negatively affect a piece’s value—although if you’re actually going to use an item, you might prefer that’s it’s in working order.

To determine condition, look for things like scratches, dents, chips, cracks and other wear-and-tear. On figurines, look especially at fingers, noses, and “accessories” like baskets or swords—these can often sustain damage. A good antique dealer will flag any flaws, but you’ll have to use sharp eyes when you’re at a garage sale. If you’re going to buy a piece that’s damaged and then invest in repair work, remember that porcelain is far easier to repair than glass.

Do a little online research before buying

If you’re somewhere with cell reception, check eBay quickly to see whether the item you’ve found has been sold recently, and what bids are like. A quick Google search can give you a good sense of whether something is rare, can show you a list of identifying marks, and whether there’s an online community of collectors aching to snatch up your find.

Only buy things you really like 

Concentrate on pieces that you actually like and would live with even if they don’t turn out to be valuable. Your chances of finding something that’s truly worth serious money are pretty slim, and too many people have clutter in their closets because they picked up something they thought would be worth the investment—then turned out to be un-sellable.

Also, re-selling garage-sale treasures can be a serious commitment of time and energy—so make sure you’re willing to do the after-sale legwork required to get a good price for your items. Otherwise, relax, enjoy bargain hunting, and spend your energy finding neat ways to display your collections—or convincing your significant other to let you keep that flashing neon beer sign.

Have you ever found a valuable treasure at a garage sale? Share your story!

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