A toy from the ’70s is worth $150… an old stereo, $2,000… and lots more

A team of photography experts and investigators announced last year that a set of glass negatives purchased at a California yard sale for $45 likely were the work of Ansel Adams and potentially worth $200 million. Others have since disputed that conclusion, but if it turns out to be true, it wouldn’t be the first million-dollar yard sale find.

A Pennsylvania man found an early copy of the Declaration of Independence behind a framed picture he purchased for $4 at a flea market in 1989. It sold at auction in 1991 for $2.42 million. A painting purchased at a Wisconsin rummage sale in the late 1990s for around $20 turned out to be by 19th-century artist Martin Johnson Heade. It sold at auction for $1.35 million.

Very few yard sale shoppers will stumble across a million-dollar discovery, of course. But you can make yard sale shopping profitable by learning which common items still have value to collectors or others. Such things might cost a few dollars apiece, so there’s no huge financial risk, even if some of your finds turn out to be worthless.

Web sites such as eBay (www.eBay.com), eBay Classifieds (www.eBayClassifieds.com) and Craigslist (www.Craigslist.org) make it relatively easy to resell yard sale purchases. If you have questions about an item you have purchased, there are chat rooms and fan pages on the Internet for virtually every type of collectible. Type the name of the collectible into a search engine to find these.

Among the products that often are worth considerably more than they sell for at yard sales…

FISHER-PRICE TOYS FROM THE 1980S OR EARLIER

Kids who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s now are old enough to collect the toys that they once played with. Fisher-Price toys in good condition are particularly desirable.

Example: A vintage Fisher-Price Little People Castle from the 1970s in excellent condition with all of its accessories could be worth $150 or more. Even castles in lesser condition or the reissued castle from the 1980s can bring significant amounts. (The pennant on the side of the 1970s version says “Play Family Castle”… the one on the reissue has a sleeping dragon.)

MARANTZ STEREO EQUIPMENT

Decades-old electronics tend to be very inexpensive at yard sales, and some audiophiles prefer the sound from the elite stereo equipment of the past to today’s audio electronics. If you come across an amplifier, receiver or speakers made by a company called Marantz in reasonable condition for a small sum at a yard sale, buy it, even if it looks out of date. It could be worth hundreds of dollars or more.

Example: A Marantz Model 2385 receiver in excellent condition from the late 1970s sold for close to $2,000 on eBay.

Some vintage Pioneer receivers are valuable as well. And any old amplifier or radio that contains vacuum tubes rather than transistors could be worth a gamble of a few dollars. Audiophiles sometimes buy old vacuum tubes to keep their own vintage stereos running. It’s not uncommon for old tubes to sell for $10 to $20 or more apiece.

OLD HARDWARE

Doorknobs, doorknob plates, hinges, locking mechanisms, doorstops, drawer pulls and other hardware from the 1950s or earlier frequently turn up at yard sales for a few dollars apiece. These can be highly valued by designers and home remodelers.

Hardware that has an Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau or Art Deco look is particularly likely to be valuable—but as long as a piece of hardware is old, attractive and in decent condition, it’s likely that someone will pay more than yard sale prices for it. You typically can tell the difference between reproduction hardware and the real thing by the patina and construction. Older pieces tend to be heavier and show significant wear.

Example: A single chrome drawer pull from the 1950s can bring $10 to $20. Matching sets are particularly likely to get a good price.

OLD PAPER ITEMS

Sometimes you can buy a stack of old magazines, pamphlets or other printed items at a yard sale for just a few dollars, yet many printed materials from the 1950s or earlier are worth at least several dollars to collectors, if not more. As a rule of thumb, if it’s pre-1960, made of paper and features eye-catching graphics or a picture of an iconic product or person, there probably is a collector out there who is willing to pay for it. Among the pre-1960 magazines that typically bring a good price are Popular Mechanics, Life, Mad and Jet, as well as almost any well-illustrated train magazine, World War II–focused magazine or women’s magazine.

Examples: Issues of Ladies’ Home Journal from the 1920s or earlier with appealing cover art in good condition often sell for $20 or more apiece on eBay. Issues of the World War II publication Signal magazine often sell for $50 to $75 or more.

Even paper items from the 1960s and 1970s can have some value if they are related to a highly collectible topic. It often is worth paying a dollar or two for an obscure car magazine from the 1960s or 1970s if it features eye-catching pictures of classic muscle cars…or a music magazine if it contains attractive full-page ads for famous rock acts or a cover story on a music icon, such as Michael Jackson.

VINTAGE NEEDLECRAFT ITEMS

Sewing and knitting are experiencing a major revival among young people, boosting the resale market for vintage sewing and knitting goods. Vintage knitting needles and crochet hooks often are worth $1 or more apiece, sometimes considerably more. Old spools of thread and knitting yarn can have value, too. That can really add up if you come across a sewing kit containing dozens of these things.

A sewing pattern from the 1980s and earlier can be worth some money, particularly if the garment still is considered fashionable. Patterns for iconic or attractive dresses from decades past tend to be worth the most.

Example: A 1960s Vogue Paris Original dress pattern brought $73. A vintage 1930s Simplicity dress pattern sold on eBay for about $50.

BARBIE’S OLD CLOTHES

If you come across a bin of doll clothes at a yard sale, search through it for any with styles that suggest the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. If you find these, check inside for a Mattel Barbie tag (or the tag of one of the other Mattel dolls in the Barbie collection, such as Francie, Ken or Skipper). Old Barbie clothes sometimes are more valuable than the dolls themselves.

Example: I recently sold a 1960s Barbie raincoat, rain boots and umbrella set for $150.

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS

Yard sale instruments often can be resold for much more than yard sale prices, either through one of the Web sites listed earlier or through a local music shop. High school-band–quality woodwind or brass instruments in good condition often bring $100 or more. String instruments in good shape usually bring at least $50 and potentially significantly more. Antique instruments can fetch thousands.

Example: My old high school clarinet is nothing special, yet it has a resale value of around $250.

VINTAGE PICTURE FRAMES

It might be worth paying a few dollars for an old painting even if the picture is unappealing—if it is in an old hand-carved wood frame. Such frames can be worth $50 or more.

Pick up the frame—a vintage hand-carved wood frame should be heavier than you expect. The more ornate the frame, the more it is likely to bring.

Example: Ornate gold-colored frames in good shape often are worth $50 to $100 and up.

DESIGNER CLOTHING FROM THE 1980S

Many young people are wearing retro styles—and they consider the 1980s retro. Garments from the 1980s that have famous designer labels are the best bets. High-end designers such as Dior and Gucci generally are most valuable, but even mass-market Izod clothes from the 1980s can have resale value if their look is iconic to that decade.

Example: Izod sweaters from the 1980s can bring $25 to $40 on eBay.