Have you ever set out to do some vintage shopping and ended up feeling like all the good stuff sold before you arrived? Next time you feel that way at a garage sale, thrift store, estate sale, or auction, pull out the following list of ten items.
I can almost guarantee you will find one of these items (probably many more than that!), because they are the sorts of things that other people invariably pass over. Bringing home one or more of these overlooked and undervalued vintage pieces, means you’ve had a successful bit of shopping and you’ll have new pieces to decorate with or to sell from your antique booth, Etsy shop, or eBay.
Are you ready to find out what those ten categories are? Let’s get started.
I’ve found that pretty much anything found in a basement or garage tends to be overlooked by most people. Of course, that’s where you’re likely to find tools, and many people don’t maintain their tools very well, so they are often dirty and/or rusty.
Most shoppers don’t stop to look at dirty or rusty, but you should. With a bit of elbow grease, the dirtiest, rustiest tool can often be transformed into an attractive piece of decor. Tools with a bit of paint, especially red and green, but also yellow, white, or black, provide some of the best decorating opportunities. I pick up most tools for $1 or less, because I’m cheap, cheap, cheap.
To give you an idea of their actual market value, the items pictured above have each sold from my Etsy shop. The clippers sold for $12.99, the brass hose attachment for $7.99, and the level for $19.99. A lovely woman actually purchased two red levels from me, and she named them both: Fred (the short one) and his cousin, Carmine (the long one). We had a good laugh back and forth with all that silliness.
The clippers came to me a bit rusty and lusterless, so they received special treatment as explained in my post about cleaning rusty metal. I found the wooden level in quite a dry state, so it received a nice rub down with one of my favorite products, which you can read about in my post on caring for dry wood.
A final note: Men love tools. So if you take the time to learn a bit about them, you will either a) be able to buy great gifts for the tool-loving man in your life or b) be positioned to sell to men, who aren’t afraid to spend some money on the things they love.
The tools I’ve talked about here are primarily decorative or functional. Men want old Stanley tools, antique hand-made tools–early and unusual stuff that takes some time to learn about. See more vintage tools here.
Frames are both functional and decorative, and they tend to be quite plentiful at all sorts of sales, not just garage sales. Old frames have many uses now-a-days: as chalk boards, bulletin boards, shadow boxes, mirrors, and more.
In the photo above, you can see I’ve used them to frame vintage flags, buttons, and a county fair poster. The flag sold for $18.00, the buttons for $10.00, and the poster for $25.00. Well worth the effort of matching up the old frames with desirable items in need of a frame. Learn more about how to “frame like a pro” here.
In the past, I’ve purchased ornate, gold-gilt frames, beautifully aged mahogany frames, and even wedding gift frames (still-in-the-box) that I’ve been able to re-gift. In fact, because of my “frame sickness” (along with several others that shall be revealed as you get to know me better), I probably own a couple hundred frames, stored in various places throughout my home. (No, I am not a hoarder!)
Sellers tend to price frames quite reasonably because they lack the knowledge to identify and appreciate older frames. A few things to look for: real wood (rather than plastic), aged paper backing, or dark (oxidized) wood, if not covered by paper. Look also for chips, small dents, and scratches since anything really old is going to have some imperfections.
Many modern frames are made to look “aged,” but they are constructed of molded plastic and are glued together. Others have ridged metal fasteners on the back corners that hold the pieces together.
Most people have their own opinion of what constitutes “art.” Someone may think their Aunt Edna’s oil paintings are ugly as sin, and when it comes time to sell her estate, they may price each piece for a couple of dollars. Sometimes I stumble across sales like this. and I fall in love with “Aunt Edna’s” artwork. In such cases, I am more than happy to liberate the family from the burden of a few of pieces.
Certain subjects and themes immediately attract me: flowers, landscapes, barns, and ships. Then I look for color scheme, if all the colors are working together and/or the piece reflects a trendy color scheme, then I’ll think about it seriously. Let me stop here and say that if it costs $1 or less I will just buy it without thinking twice. If I decide when I get home that I don’t like it, I’ll just re-thrift it, or if its a canvas, I’ll use it for one of my own art projects.
But if it costs more than $1 my next question to myself is, “Was the piece created with any evident skill?” Most of the art I see at garage sales falls into the “naive” category, basically art created by someone with little or no training (this also puts it into the “folk art” category). However, that doesn’t mean the artist had no skill. Good naive art will demonstrate the basic artistic qualities of balance, unity, and a pleasing color scheme.
I purchased all three pieces above at garage or estate sales. The first, my favorite, sold from my booth at the Gristmill Antique Center for $42.00; the second sold for $34.99 from my Etsy shop, and the last piece sold for $38.00 from my booth. You can find more art for sale in my Vintage Shop. And take a look at my personal art collection here.
I have pretty good luck finding jewelry while I’m out garage saling. I often find sterling silver pieces left behind by other sellers because they were unattractive. Sometimes unattractive means old and I can resell it. Sometimes it just means plain ugly!
But in that case I can sell the sterling for scrap or use it for parts, for example, an ugly pendant on a perfectly fine chain. I can match the chain with a pretty pendant I have in stock and sell it as a set.
Sterling may be marked “Sterling” or “925,” and is almost always marked, as is gold, which is marked by karat, 14K for example.
I must note that a fair number of people are always on the look-out for jewelry. I’ve hit plenty of sales where the jewelry has been quite picked over. But those jewelry buyers can’t attend every single sale. And the sales they miss are the ones where I am able to make some fun purchases, like the pieces above–all purchased for $1 or less.
The enamel daisy pin on the left sold for $9.99, the sterling silver identity bracelet for $16.99, and the circle pin is still for sale in my Vintage shop ($5.99), along with many other pieces.
Some items to look for include Christmas tree pins, other figural pins (e.g., animals, insects, and fruit), Bakelite anything, signed pieces (e.g., Corot, Haskell, Weisenburg, etc.), and ornate rhinestone pieces. You can get help pricing your vintage jewelry here.
Coffee Table Books
Coffee table books provide a great decorating accessory–lay one on a coffee table or stack them underneath an end table, both look terrific. They provide a literary, well-read sort of feeling to a room, and depending on the subject matter, can make a real statement, too.
Categories to look for include: movie stars, birds, cities, baseball, art, and your local area. One of my personal, favorite coffee table books addresses Albany history, written by a former Assemblyman, who I knew when I worked in the NYS legislature. Another, a classic on folk art by Jean Lipman, has a stunning cover filled with folk art images.
Quite plentiful at all kinds of sales, coffee table books can usually be had for a dollar or two. Resale value can vary from $8-$25 and up.
I sold a Marilyn coffee table book on Etsy for $24.99. Published in 1973, the book’s author, Norman Mailer (the famous playwright and divorced husband to Monroe), adored her. The book contains page after page of sumptuous black and white photos.
Old Houses (above) sold for $9.99 at my antique shop, Michelangelo sold for $19.99, and the Eric Sloan sold for $9.99. You can find more for sale in the book section of my Vintage Shop.
Many sales have box after box (or shelf after shelf) of books for sale; it can feel extremely overwhelming. Rather than look through all of the books, focus just on the over-sized, coffee table books. They stand out and usually, less of them have been offered for sale.
Most people will not touch, let alone buy, anything with rust on it, but if you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that a little bit of rust never stops me! Of course, rust is “in” with some decorative items, but I’ve also learned how to deal with unwanted rust as I mentioned above; you can read more about it here.
Some items to look for: vintage rusty tools, grates, gates, lanterns, trivets, cast iron pots, plant holders, and scissors. I bought two rusty lanterns not too long ago that no amount of rust removal tricks could affect. I sold them as is (completely rusted) at a good profit.
Above you can see the before and after of a metal folding ruler. I took care of the rust and brightened up the brass fittings, and then it sold quickly at my antique booth for $12.00. (Note: You can fold folding rulers into the shape of stars and they make great farmhouse decorations.)
If you find a rusty piece of “junk” and think it’s interesting, chances are, others will too. Does it have an appealing shape? Is it colorful? Can it be grouped with other items? Can you hang it on the wall? Will it look good in the sun room, the den, or the family room? These are some good questions to ask yourself when you come across a piece of old rusty metal.
Folk Arty Pieces
Folk art is a unique kind of art, typically produced by untrained artists in a naive style. Often proportion and realism take a back seat to charm. It will, however, usually hit the nail on the head with one or more elements, like shape or balance or color, and it typically possesses a warmth and/or vibrancy that one feels irresistibly drawn to.
Crafts like basketry, rug hooking, and weaving are also considered forms of folk art by many. I think you kind of “know it when you see it.”
Folk art has a special place in my heart; I find myself very attracted to all of its many forms. In the first photo above you see a hand crafted wooden mold of some sort; I love is pumpkin shape, and it remains in my “private” collection. I hope someday to discover it’s true purpose.
The watercolor in the middle reminds me so much of Grandma Moses–perhaps the most famous folk artist of all time. You can see that proportion is off, as is the depth, and yet, I reframed it and sold it recently for $45.00.
I purchased the cat-in-the-boot (far right) in England when we lived there from 2009 through 2011. He’s a great example of proportion not quite right and facial features not fully realistic, but at the same time, he’s so darn cute! A lucky Etsy buyer purchased him for $34.99.
Keep in mind that certain kinds of art that you might find at a garage sale, pieces like framed children’s art or poorly executed art student renderings, more often than not fail to rise to the level of folk art.
Weathered Wooden Stuff
Another category that people often overlook at garage sale includes any sort of old weathered wooden thing, like those you see above. For some reason, it’s easy for the eye to overlook them–they look like something you might throw away (or burn) and because you have to imagine a new purpose for them, buyers will often overlook them.
The scrap wood in the first photo could easily be used to create a decorative tray or to make signs. The cylinder in the second photo would make a unique “sculpture,” perhaps set on a coffee table or hung on the wall. And the ladder could function in several ways, as a quick scan of Pinterest would prove. [See more signs here and here.]
Other old weathered pieces to look for include bird houses, pieces of fencing, plant boxes, outdoor decorations, and whirly gigs. It’s hard to go wrong with purchasing any reasonably well made wooden piece that’s priced low. I can safely promise that you will either find a way to use it “as is” or come up with DIY project that’s perfect for it.
More weathered wooden objects to searchfor at garage sales? How about shutters, doors, and crates, all of which offer fantastic decorating possibilities. [See more crate projects here and here.] Shutters and doors can be hung on a wall, rested in a corner, or placed on a mantel. Small crates make great centerpieces andlarger ones can be stacked to create end-tables or small shelving units.
The sky’s the limit when it comes to old wooden finds.
It seems like almost every garage sale I go to has a pile of vintage games for sale. Most can be had for around a dollar, and I’ve found that the game pieces can be worth more than the games themselves. Crazy right?
Game pieces appeal to scrapbookers, steampunk-ers (see below), and altered art creators, so there’s a nice market for these sorts of things. They have a sculptural quality about them that is very appealing. I would someday love to fill a printer’s tray with a variety of pieces from games I enjoyed as a child, like Clue, Life, and Monopoly.
Fill a small bowl or clear glass jar with your favorite game pieces, Scrabble tiles in particular, and you have a great conversation starter. Wouldn’t guests find such a bowl impossible to resist? They would be spelling words before you know it.
Crafters love scrabble pieces for all kinds of projects; I sell them for $8.99 a set. Just recently, I used Scrabble tiles to create a unique Christmas ornament that ended up being extremely popular at the Christmas craft fair I sell at every year. And my daughter and I have made cute earrings with both Scrabble and Bingo tiles.
The vintage, wooden Parcheesi pieces you see above recently sold for $5.99, and the letter cards (64 of them) sold for $6.99. Monopoly pieces, bingo numbers, and dice (particularly Bakelite ones) are also very popular. I’ve used Bingo cards to create attractive Christmas decorations for a few years now. You can also see one in an altered art project of mine here.
The possibilities seem nearly endless for these very diminutive vintage objects.
Steam Punk or Altered Art Supplies
The term “steampunk” refers to a period in the 1800’s when the world was fascinated with science, exploration, and invention–all things industrial, scientific, and time-related.
This is a somewhat narrow category, but it is growing in popularity among young people (my daughter included). Many like to wear steampunk inspired jewelry and still others use the same types of supplies for a variety of unique and interesting art projects.
The items above fairly flew out of my Etsy shop: 50 large brass safety pins ($5.99), 10 small pulleys ($9.99), and 13 rusty, square-head nails ($5.99). I’ve sold eight sets of the rusty nails so far. I know, amazing! I’ve seen the square head nails used as hooks on an old slab of wood, which is actually more antique-y than steampunk-y
Other items to look for include hinges, knobs, clock faces, clock parts, gears, and similar “junk.” Like game pieces, these kinds of collectibles look great tossed in a bowl or jar, and will definitely get people talking.
So that’s my list; I hope you found it informative and helpful to you in your vintage shopping. I hope you make some wonderful new and exciting purchases. Happy hunting!