In the past few weeks alone, for example, I've come across a Juicy Couture hoodie for $18; a Coach purse for $15; and a BCBG dress for $12.
Beyond the remarkable finds, though, I love thrift shops because they're entertaining. You can't make up the stuff you come across--it's often colorful, sometimes outlandish, frequently random, and occasionally unique.
Sometimes that uniqueness proves lucrative. Here are seven times people have followed their thrift shop curiosity into big payouts:
1. What's behind that frame?
In 2007, art dealer and collector Laura Stouffer poked around in a thrift shop in Summerville, South Carolina, until she came across a mid-1880s print of a painting she liked. She picked it up for a few bucks. When she later removed it from its frame, she discovered an original poster of the 1930 award-winning film All Quiet on the Western Front.
Estimated value? $20,000.
2. Sweater weather.
In 2014, Sean and Rikki McEvoy snagged an old West Point sweater at a Goodwill for a whopping 58 cents. They planned to sell it online as vintage clothing, but since it was moth-damaged, Rikki decided to fix it so her husband could wear it instead.
It turned out to be a good choice. The couple was watching a documentary on famous football coach Vince Lombardi when they noticed the sweater he had on looked remarkably familiar. They fetched the garment in question and lo and behold, found Lombardi's name written in it.
After it was authenticated, it sold for $43,020.
3. It pays to go to museums.
In 2005, a Philly woman bought a necklace at a flea market for $15. In 2008, she wore it to an Alexander Calder exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Struck by the similarity between her own necklace and others in the exhibit, she had it checked out.
The flea market piece was, indeed, an authentic work by the famous sculptor... valued at $300,000.
4. Well, I do declare.
In 2006, Michael Sparks paid $2.48 for what he thought was a very well-done reproduction of the Declaration of Independence at a thrift store in Nashville, Tennessee.
Curious about the document, Sparks did some research, and discovered that it was one of 200 copies John Quincy Adams had made in 1820. It turns out it's only the 36th ever discovered--which means there are likely over a hundred copies still out there somewhere.
It would be worth finding one. Sparks sold the parchment for $477,650.
5. High tea.
An antiques enthusiast won a teapot for the modest bid of £15 ($20) at an auction in Lincolnshire, England. The buyer didn't know its real value at the time; it turned out to be the work of renowned potter John Bartlam, one of the first artisans to produce original pieces of porcelain in America.
The teapot was one of the few examples of Bartlam's work to survive the American Revolution, which is why, in 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was willing to go up against a rather determined private bidder to buy it.
"If it hadn't been for that [original] internet bid, it probably would have ended up in a bin," Clare Durham of auction house Woolley & Wallis told The New York Times.
The Met scooped the teapot up for £575,000 ($806,000).
6. Sometimes it's good to kid yourself.
In 2010, Randy Guijarro was rooting through boxes at a curio shop in Fresno, California, when he saw some cool old tintype photographs that he scooped up for $1 apiece.
His eye was particularly drawn to the figure in one of them, and on a hunch he did some digging. He was proved correct--it really was infamous outlaw Billy the Kid playing croquet. Other men in the image turned out to be members of Billy's gang.
As one of only two authenticated pictures of Billy the Kid known to exist, this $1 find has been appraised at $5 million.
7. A practical joke pays off--literally
In 1991, Teri Horton wanted to cheer up her friend, so she got her a huge, ugly painting from a San Bernadino thrift store for $5. The friend thought it was funny but had no room for it in her trailer home, so Horton took it back.
When Horton later tried to sell it at a garage sale of her own, an art teacher wondered aloud whether it was a Jackson Pollock. Horton responded, "Who the f--- is Jackson Pollock?" ... a phrase that later became the title of a documentary about the whole thing.
A forensic specialist found a fingerprint on the framed splatter-paint and traced it to Pollock's studio. Horton was offered $9 million for the piece, but is holding out for the $50 million that others have estimated its value to be.
Have fun, and follow your curiosity. Almost none of the people in question would have been able to cash in if they hadn't been inquisitive. They also wouldn't have succeeded if they'd talked themselves out of the possibility that they might just be right. Maybe it is Lombardi's sweater. Maybe it is Billy the Kid in that tintype photograph. Maybe my necklace really is an original Calder.
As adults, we tend to lose the childlike curiosity we were born with. Fight the loss! Put yourself in environments where you again feel that sense of wonder, of delight, of the mysterious and exciting unknown.
Stay open. Explore. And do things in the analog world, like shopping at thrift shops. Because even if you've only got twenty dollars in your pocket... what you find could be freaking awesome.