Michelle has been finding vintage items to resell for 20+ years.
In 1997, my husband and I walked into a thrift store in a desert town. We were just starting out and had very little money. I found a set of blue glass dinner plates. We needed plates, so I paid $6.00 for the stack that was bundled together.
Those plates turned out to be Depression-era bubble glass plates made by Fire King (Hocking Glass Company), each worth $8.00. This was a fact I would uncover by buying my first depression glass field guild. Those plates hooked me into the dark world of treasure hunting at thrift stores, yard sales, and even antique shops. Since that time, I’ve owned my own store, gone the storage auction route, and never stopped hunting.
Items, like people, have a history and were created for a purpose. Depression glass was created to make something usually mundane and make it cheerful at a time when life was horrible for a lot of Americans. Knowing the history of an object helps to sell the object. After 20 years, I know the difference between unusual good and unusual bad. It takes time and patience to learn. There is enough “used” merchandise in the United States that we could probably not import anything for the next 20 years and still all have clothing and decorator items through the next millennium.
“We are born treasure hunters, the thrill is in the hunt as much as the find, and even more so in the story telling that goes with it”
The Truth of Resale
There a few truths to treasure hunting that have to be understood before you can make any money.
- The first truth is that you will make mistakes and overpay. My enthusiasm over something marked “occupied Japan” has gotten me a time or two. It helps to have your phone and do a quick google search to see what is selling (not what is listed).
- Know decorator and fashion trends. The past few years, “vintage” has been on fire. Tomorrow that could change. Stay up on the trends.
- It can take a long time to sell an item. Don’t invest money you don’t have. Desperation will force you to undersell something just to get your money back.
- Sell while it’s hot. If you want to make money, do not hold onto things that will sell now.
- To make a living at resale you have to work at it like a regular job. If you are retired or looking for a side hustle, this is a good supplemental income. To pay the bills from resale, you have to be willing to put in a lot of time.
- You have to have a place to put your resale items and a system for storing them.
- An item is only worth what someone will pay. Putting items for sale at a high price does not guarantee a sale. Unless you have a big auction house selling your stuff to the rich and famous, be reasonable about your pricing.
- One man’s trash really is another man’s treasure. People still collect things and look for things.
Finding the Treasure
Start with your own stuff. Go through closets and your garage to find things you don’t use or care about. The dress you wore once might be worth something during prom season. The old tool you replaced with your new set might be worth something. Dig through all the nook and crannies of that house to find stuff.
Hot sellers change over time. This week I picked up a few hot wheels cars from the '70s out of a Goodwill toy bin (for my grandkids), it turns out one of them was selling on eBay for $50.00 (I don’t think anyone was paying $50.00 for it).
Thrift stores, swap meets, yard sales, estate sales, Craigslist, and Facebook marketplace are all good places to find items. When I’m not searching through thrift stores, I’m scanning Craigslist and Facebook. A good hunter is always looking.
Just like in pirate times, finding treasure requires digging. You have to be willing to dig through bins, boxes, yard sale junk, and sometimes trash. One of my kids found an expensive dress form at the dump while he was dropping off yard clippings. When you are at thrift stores dig through all the bins.
Decorator items can be tricky. Thrift stores are filled with amateur paintings and dollar store brick-a-brack. It is helpful to know the dollar store brands such as “greenbrier” or “momentum." At the same time, know when stores went out of business like “Woolworth” or “Gemco." The older store tags mean “vintage."
Speaking of stores, buying items at 75% off sales can be lucrative. Items such as pool toys, Christmas décor, and even baby clothing can be sold for a profit if it’s done right. You have to be ready to hold onto those items for a year. This is where a good catalog system makes sense. I don’t recommend this for people who might have to move. There is nothing quite like moving two trucks of resale on top of your household in the middle of summer.
“Whoever dies with the most stuff wins”
— David Mitchell
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Fakes and Reproductions
Anything worth money has been reproduced or "faked." This is true of every important maker of anything in the world. Everything from people etching "Tiffany and Co." into a lamp base to the mass production of fake coach bags have been tried to turn a buck. When you brave the world of resale you have to be wise about the find. People say "if it's too good to be true it probably is not true." Those people were not with me the day I paid $7.99 for a REAL Louis Vuitton bucket bag or the day I sold a toy smurf for $325.00. The finds are out there, you just have to know your stuff.
It is illegal to sell a fake designer-brand bag. High-end bags are of high quality. Purses such as Coach and Louis Vuitton are made of good leather and stitched tight. Real leather does not peel. Leather is the first sign that a bag is real. The first thing I do when looking through a rack of purses is to touch them to see if they are cold, cold means the purse is made of vinyl. If it's vinyl, I don’t even look at it, I move on. Every designer has tells that will clue you into if the bag is a fake. The easiest way to understand a brand is to go to their stores and look at their product. Salespeople are helpful in this regard. Get to know your brands. If you suspect something is a fake, check it out online.
Almost all the silver service pieces I’ve found over the years are plated. Oneida, Reed, and Barton, Wallace are common brands you will come across when foraging for treasure. Silverplate doesn’t mean it’s cheap stuff. If the price is right, you can make money on almost anything.
Speaking of silver, there is a huge market for jewelry. Name brand jewelry (even costume jewelry) can fetch a fair price. Pearls are tough to identify as real or fake. Older real pearl strands often had knots in between each pear, just in case you broke it. Today it is more likely to see smaller pearls that are not individually tied. Most of the pearls I’ve come across were obvious fakes showing plastic lines down the beads.
Have you ever seen a $500.00 piece of art hanging out at an estate sale or yard sale? Here are some tips for making money with art:
- First, look at the frame. Professionally framed items are more likely to be valuable. Ornate gold frames are a giveaway for art. Another giveaway is a custom metal frame. Custom framing is expensive ($300–$500), so most people will not go to that expense for a print. That said, I taught myself how to take apart a custom frame; people like me exist, so choose wisely.
- Make sure the painting is original, not a print. This can be difficult to tell unless you paint. The surface should have a rough texture or show brush strokes. This rule may not apply to a good Glacier printed and authenticated piece (these usually have the paper attached).
- If it’s a watercolor, look to see if you can see pencil or pen marks. Most artists trace their work prior to painting. Also, many prints are numbered. If it’s a popular artist, the copy might be worth something. The number also tells you the work is a copy.
- Keep in mind anything can be framed, calendars, ads, book, and magazine pages.
Vintage vs. Antique
A true antique is 100 years old, with the exception of cars. That means when you list an item for sale, you cannot list it as antique unless you know the age of the item. It is safer to list as “vintage” which means "of a certain year" and technically is a term for wine connoisseurs. Resellers have borrowed the term vintage to give provenance to their items.
Learn the history of your item. People get excited when they know an item came off the Titanic or was owned by Elvis; never make up stories. Did you know that marbles were not mass manufactured in the United States until after World War I? Fun little facts help to date and sell the item. Don’t be afraid to buy something you’ve never seen before and learn about it.
What Is Selling?
As previously mentioned, it helps to be on top of decorating and fashion trends. Women’s handbags are a hot market if you know the trend. Years ago, the brightly colored heavily ornamented “Kathy” bags were pretty pricey. Today, those same bags are in every thrift store and sell on eBay for less than $10.
I don’t avidly follow vogue, but you can search fashion trends and see what’s happening. On eBay, you can search "sold" items to see if an item has a market. Pinterest is another good place to figure out what is trending.
There is always a temptation to keep one of your treasures. Be selective about what you keep. Carefully consider whether or not that item is going to be useful in your life. When I found the Louis Vuitton, it took me about two weeks to decide to sell it. In the end, I realized that it wasn’t my style. Set limits and maintain them. The nicer an item is, the more money you will make. Happy hunting!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2019 MD Jackson MSIOP
Cynthia B Turner from Georgia on July 31, 2019:
Your article is very timely for me. I have been considering resale as a fun and possibly lucrative venture to get into. I love to shop and to rummage through thrift shops and garage sales. Reselling my items would help satisfy the thrill of the hunt without killing my budget. I will consider your advise. Take care.
Larry Slawson from North Carolina on July 30, 2019:
Great tips here. I've recently started doing this myself. Its amazing what you can find sometimes.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 30, 2019:
This is a very interesting article as I never considered making money this way. I have had garage sales and been to them, but I never searched specifically for items that I could sell for more money. This article will be very helpful for those that want to learn some of your techniques.
Liz Westwood from UK on July 30, 2019:
This is a very useful guide for anyone planning on making money from buying and selling items.