Trash or Treasure? 5 Ways to Find Out

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Did you hear about the homeowner who was cleaning out the basement and found a copy of Action Comics #1, a comic book with an appraised value of more than $250,000? And just in the nick of time too since his home was about to go into foreclosure any day.

Stories like this, in addition to the popular PBS series Antiques Roadshow, have spurred many folks to head into attics and basements on their own mini treasure hunts. Think you’ve found your potential fortune in a dusty old box? How do you know if that “junk”—or “priceless antique”—you inherited from your Aunt Betsy is really worth any money?

You may not know until you do a bit of research or have the items professionally appraised. But if you have some time on your hands and want to do a little treasure hunting, here are 5 tips to help you separate trash from treasure. You might be surprised at what’s considered valuable these days and what’s not!

1. Do Your Homework

Step one is a reality check. You might find an item that you think is worth a lot, but most of the time it is just a copycat or poorly made reproduction. If you are really serious about separating out the good from the bad, start visiting flea markets and antiques and collectibles shops, or checking out the collections at the museum. The experts can give you some pointers on how to tell if something is a rare original or a cheap reproduction. And don’t forget that “cheap reproductions” can sometimes still be worth quite a bit depending on their age and rarity. Get to know what collectors look for in the kinds of pieces you have.

2. Join a Collectors Club

If your Uncle Fred was a collector of, say, antique tools, Catalina pottery, or even PEZ dispensers, and you’ve found yourself in possession of his beloved collection, it’s probably worth your time and money to join a collector’s club where the members have plenty of expertise and knowledge to share with others. Who knows, you might even catch the bug yourself and decide to continue building on that collection!

3. Check Out a Price Guide

A tedious, but generally reliable, method for getting rough values is checking out a price guide. There are price guides for general antiques and collectibles—Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide is a good one to start with—and for just about any specific area from American silver to Staffordshire pottery, Art Deco furniture to retro jewelry.

4. Visit a Dealer…or Three

Once you know what you have, visit two or three antiques and collectibles dealers to get a feel for what they think the items are worth. Make it clear that you aren’t interested in selling and be sure to ask what they think the items are worth, not what the dealers would pay for them. There’s a difference. Remember that dealers buy items with the expectation of turning a profit on the resale.

5. Have the Item(s) Professionally Appraised

If it seems like the item is valuable either because you’ve done your research or because you couldn’t help but notice how much the dealer’s eyes lit up when he saw your item, then have a professional appraiser determine its value. 

Keep in mind that the antique business is a business like any other, so if you do find a treasure or two in the attic that you think might be worth something, make sure you get a fair price for it if you decide to sell.