These historic thrift store finds now worth up to a staggering $5 million

Elvis Presley photo on a record

What do Elvis, Andy Warhol, Billy the Kid, and Thomas Jefferson all have in common? They all played a role in some pretty spectacular thrift store finds!

A thrift store find (or “thrift store treasure”) is an item someone has purchased that has a value that far exceeds the purchase price. Thrift store flippers are folks who then resell their thrift store finds at a higher price, sometimes making thousands of dollars (or more) in profit.  

In this article, we share the details of three remarkable treasures that lucky buyers discovered in thrift stores. In all three cases, the buyers literally spent a few dollars for items worth a sizeable fortune. Two of the finds are worth six figures, while the third is valued at $5 million!

Thrift store find #1: $500,000 for an Elvis handbag

Elvis Presley illustration

In a jaw-dropping twist of fate, John Richard’s hunt through an English thrift store turned into a massive windfall.

The UK pensioner was digging through a local charity shop when a distinctive Elvis print caught his eye. That print was on a handbag in good condition, and so Richard paid the £20 (about $30) quite cheerfully.

As he examined the bag more closely, he became convinced that the uniqueness of the design was just too good for a knock-off.

He took his find into the local Philip Treacy store, where he received what was probably the shock of his life.

Not only was the handbag an original by the famous Irish designer, but it was a limited edition. Only ten were ever made, making his thrift store find a true treasure.

To really understand why the Elvis handbag is such a find, you need to know a little something about its creator. The designer, Philip Treacy, is a famed milliner to British royalty. He’s designed hats for some of the world’s top celebrities, including Lady Gaga.

And he’s widely known for achieving Internet notoriety for his design of Princess Beatrice’s royal wedding hat, which many deemed over-the-top (quite literally) and “ridiculous.”

If you’re interested in learning more about designer Philip Treacy, this interview does a fine job showcasing how he comes up with his innovative designs (using his work on a Harry Potter movie as an example):

What makes the handbag that John Richard found even more collectible is that the Elvis design is from an Andy Warhol painting of the American Rock and Roll icon. So, in one handbag you have connections to three celebrities: Elvis, Andy Warhol, and Philip Treacy.

While the limited-edition handbags initially sold for $400 to $500 each, the price has since skyrocketed. It turns out that collectors are willing to pay a reported £350,000 (approximately $545,000) for the Elvis handbags. We can see why John Richard was so excited about his thrift store find!

We couldn’t find any reports if Richard eventually put the Elvis handbag up for auction. However, he has stated he plans to use the proceeds to open a hair salon for his partner when he does.

Thrift store find #2: The Holy Grail—Billy the Kid playing croquet

Billy the Kid playing croquet

Billy the Kid is a name that instantly evokes the romantic ethos of the Wild West. He’s one-part outlaw, one-part juvenile delinquent, one-part rebel, one-part predator.

For some, he’s a misunderstood tragedy. For others, he’s nothing more than a cold-blooded murderer who got what he deserved when lawman Pat Garrett allegedly killed him in a gunfight at the age of 21.  

Whatever your idea of Billy the Kid is, it probably doesn’t include him playing croquet. Yet, as Randy Guijarro found out, even legends will surprise you.

While browsing through a box of unwanted photos in a junk shop in Fresno, California, Guijarro was drawn to one picture in particular.

The cracked and faded 4” x 5” tintype print showed a bunch of men and women — plus two horses — ranged in front of a little shack. Two men in the middle are paused in the middle of a croquet game. Guijarro shelled out a mere $2 for the intriguing photo.

Guijarro talks about his amazing millionaire-making find in this ABC News interview:

As it turns out, the player in a striped vest and top hat is Billy the Kid. And the rough-worn image is only the second ever confirmed photo of the outlaw.

Croquet was a lawn game conceived in Britain. It’s still associated with the idea of the gentry enjoying high tea on a green lawn. However, the game became popular in America as it was fairly cheap and both men and women could play.

Billy the Kid and his gang (the other men in the photo) were relaxing about a month after their involvement in the brutal Lincoln County War.

An original Billy the Kid photo is the holy grail of Western Americana,” says David McCarthy from Kagin’s, the company that authenticated the photo. Which explains why the photo, though still unsold, has been initially appraised for as much as $5 million!

Thrift store find #3: Declaration of Independence turns $2 into $477,000

Declaration of Independence with U.S. flag in background

Finding an authentic copy of the Declaration of Independence sounds like the plot of a movie starring Nicolas Cage. Fortunately, for Michael Sparks this story involves very little danger, just a lot of profit.

Kay Boner, manager of Nashville’s Music City Thrift Store, had priced the old copy of the Declaration of Independence for the “standard price” of a mere $2.48.

For some reason, Sparks liked it more than other versions he’d seen in thrift stores over the years. “This one was so beautiful I thought it was an engraving.” He cheerfully paid the thrift store price and took his find off to an expert.

Fast forward a year, and Sparks sold his beautiful copy to a Utah investment firm, this time for a staggering $477,650.

It turns out that this was an original copy of the Declaration of Independence commissioned by John Quincy Adams in 1823. Only 35 copies of 200 original printings were thought to still exist. Sparks’ find brings it up to 36.

At some point the historical artifact had been varnished, which experts carefully removed. However, the varnish had preserved the ink, making this copy of the Declaration one of the best preserved in existence, partially explaining the remarkable price.

The document had hung for years in the garage of Tennessean Stan Caffy, who’d bought the hidden treasure at a garage sale years earlier. Due to his wife’s insistence on cleaning out their garage, he reluctantly donated it to the thrift store, where Sparks found it just two days later. Sparks later remarked, “It just doesn’t pay to keep a clean house.”

While housekeepers all over the world will disagree with that statement, it does raise an important point:

How do you avoid the kind of insane regret that can only occur when you miss out on a fortune?

How to NOT be the person who gives away a million-dollar thrift store find

Whether it’s the English charity store that somehow failed to properly vet its own inventory, or the anonymous online seller who let go of an $800,000 teapot for $20, these incredible thrift store finds each tell a story of a winner and a loser.

The charity store that let go of the $500,000 Elvis handbag has a mission to feed the hungry in West Africa. As they complained upon hearing what Richard had been offered, that money would have gone a long way toward fulfilling that mission.

Still, despite having a vetting process in place, they somehow missed the telltale signs and sold the handbag for $30 in good faith. As painful as their mistake might be, they’ve got no real right to complain.

There are a few basic things you can do to ensure you’re not giving away something so valuable that you’ll later feel that pain of regret.

The first step is to take your time when cleaning out the garage. Or, you know, basement, attic, spare room, storage unit. Really look at those bits and pieces you’re getting rid of.

Pay attention to things like age, quality, beauty, and uniqueness. Something like the surprisingly elegant script on an old document, or a designer label you always thought was some kind of knockoff.

Taking the time to look up what the item might be worth, or taking an item in to a local antique dealer you trust is also a good step.

Tips to develop a million-dollar intuition

There’s a lot to know about antiques and historical finds. So much that many people make a full-time career out of it. For the rest of us, knowing everything about what things are truly worth, and why, is probably a little out of reach.

Tip #1: Focus on one category of potential thrift store finds

If you’re going to make a hobby out of looking for great thrift store deals, we’d recommend specializing in something you’re interested in:

  • rare books,
  • furniture,
  • quilts,
  • dishes, or,
  • coins

Learn a lot about one thing, and you’re more likely to recognize true value.

Tip #2: Learn to recognize uniqueness

Develop a feeling for value that transcends the form it takes. Each of our three stories has an element of someone who was willing to take their time and look for telltale signs of authenticity, interest, and potential value.

As the finder of the Declaration of Independence copy says, “I look for things that have quality to them.”

Tip #3: There’s an app for that!

There are some apps that might help you with valuing items by taking a photo of them. One such app is WorthPoint. Basically, you take a picture of an item, and WorthPoint will check it against a growing database of 1.2 billion images and listings.

The app will also help guide you through identifying key features to determine age, authenticity, and value.

Another app is Antique Price Guides, which you can find on Google Play. The app is by Antiques Navigator and provides users with free guides that help in valuing antiques and collectibles. The tool allows you to search many categories and includes a large database with values and prices paid for specific antiques and collectibles.

If you take the time to pay attention to what you find—or even what you already own—maybe yours will be the next headline-worthy story of a trivial sum transforming into an astronomical windfall.

Suzanna Fitzgerald

Suzanna Fitzgerald is a professional content writer specializing in crafting your stories into irresistible online marketing blueprints.

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