By Rebecca Knapp Adams ’88
To start, let’s define “treasure.” The odds of discovering an Old Master drawing or signed first edition with a $5 price tag are not in your favor. If you’re looking for good quality and value at a yard sale, however, here are some pointers.
Think “wood.” Craftsmanship of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early- to mid-twentieth centuries cannot be matched by what’s available on the mass market today. If you find a solid console table, high chest, or set of dining chairs with some age behind them, consider what you might pay instead for contemporary versions that lack the character and longevity. Dings and pings shouldn’t deter you. Missing hardware or drawer pulls can easily be replaced.
As with furniture, older wooden frames (pre-1970s) tend to be well crafted and durable and, if intricately carved, can become a statement piece. Look beyond layers of paint on the outside, and scary clown painting or cloying still life on the inside, and you can find a winner—typically for less than $10, and only slightly more for a very large frame.
While the thought of buying a stranger’s clothing might put you off this category, patient sleuthing can unearth great buys for wearing or for resale. I remain in awe of the well-preserved long, green boiled-wool Eileen Fisher coat I purchased for $5 several years ago, variations of which appear on eBay for well over $100—I could have turned a tidy profit if I’d loved it less. Caveat: stains and smells are reasons to walk away from any item. Yard sales often feature baby and infant clothing that still have tags—bigger-ticket items, like snowsuits and winter boots will feel like a treasure if you are outfitting kids who grow out of one size and into the next between snowstorms.
Glassware and Ceramics
Vintage ceramics, art pottery, fine porcelain, colored glassware—it’s almost too vast a universe. But if you’re drawn to certain pieces or makers and are willing to do your research, the hunt itself is pretty exciting. Collectible pottery and art glass often bear a maker’s mark, typically on the bottom of a piece, and the more you learn about the evolution of a maker’s mark the more you will know about the next object you find yourself inspecting at a sale.
Bring your tools:
- Smart phone: Check the price range for your finds on eBay. The yard sale tag should be about 25 to 50 percent of that listed on the site. Anything less is probably a steal and anything in that range can be considered reasonable.
- Magnifying glass: Your 20/20 vision might not be good enough to decipher the maker’s mark or “karat” notation on a delicate piece of gold jewelry.
- Charisma: Strike up a genuine conversation with the person running the sale. A minute or two of chat could prompt the gatekeeper to tell you about a box of antique tools, vintage game boards, or the complete National Geographic library stowed in the attic.
Rebecca Knapp Adams ’88 is features editor at Arts & Antiques magazine.
This piece first appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Bowdoin magazine.