Anyone who’s ever visited a garage sale or thrift store likely had one thing on their mind: treasure. Not in the literal sense, of course but the kind that comes from finding something priceless among all the junk. But, having a keen eye for what’s valuable—a skill called “picking”—definitely takes practice.
Veterans of the picking movement, Sean and Nikki McEvoy knew a good deal when they saw it, which was why they snatched up an unassuming old sweater at Goodwill for next to nothing. But after discovering a name scribbled inside, the couple realized whom the sweater once belonged to and wondered just how much they could sell it for.
Most self-described “pickers” are usually in search of flashier finds à la American Pickers — vintage signs, antique toys, and the like. But Sean and Nikki make their bread and butter from a place even the most seasoned treasure hunters avoid.
Used clothes bins. As full-time pickers, the Knoxville, Tennessee couple spends their days traveling the country in search of valuable vintage clothing to sell through their online shop, Roselyn VTG Trading Co.
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Unsurprisingly, their favorite places to pick are Goodwill stores, known in the picking community as “bins.” So as the couple made their way through North Carolina in search of their next great find, they made stopping at the Goodwill in Asheville a top priority.
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Sifting through the piles of used clothing, Sean and Nikki came away with a some solid pieces, a few pretty good finds for a short day’s work. Yet as they turned to pay for their haul, Sean spotted something sticking out of one of the bins.
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“At first, I thought it was a basketball warm-up,” he told ESPN.com, though whatever it was, Sean knew he wasn’t about to leave it behind. Before anyone else could snatch it away, he grabbed the old West Point sweater and headed to meet Nikki at checkout.
While most clothing stores have each article priced, Goodwill outlets like the one in Asheville have you pay by weight. And so, Sean tossed the sweater in with the rest of the clothes. Its final price? Just 58 cents.
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For several months, the sweater sat amongst the hundreds of other articles of clothing in the McEvoy’s home, destined to be flipped for a few bucks on eBay. Sean had actually forgotten all about the unusual piece, his attention focused most lately on some good ‘ol ESPN.
At the time, the network was airing a documentary special on Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NFL. Nestled on the couch, Sean sat back and watched the archival footage play — until one image made him jump to his feet.
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In the photo stood a young Vince Lombardi during his Army coaching days — and there, clear as day, was Sean’s sweater. But this just had to be a coincidence, right? Surely West Point had issued hundreds of those sweaters over the years.
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Just to be sure, Sean rushed to his storage bins and fished out the Goodwill find. He flipped the sweater inside-out, discovering a collar tag with something scribbled on it in faded black ink. It read: Lombardi.
Sean was reeling from the magnitude of his discovery, but as he ran it over and over in his head, it just didn’t add up. Had he really paid 58 cents — the kind of change you’d spend on a gumball machine — for one of the greatest treasures in sports history? He had to know for sure.
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He decided to contact the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who requested that he donate the sweater outright — Sean, however, was still a businessman. If it proved to be the real deal, Sean and Nikki could expect a pretty nice payday, leading him to link up with Heritage Auctions in Dallas instead.
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Not wanting to send the potentially priceless item by mail during the holidays, Sean made the 12-hour drive to D-Town to meet with Heritage and reps from the uniform authentication company Mears. After painstakingly examining every inch of the sweater, the evidence was undeniable.
It was real! But then came the million-dollar question: how did Vince Lombardi’s sweater make its way into an Asheville Goodwill bin? Evidently, it was all thanks to one man: Bill Wannamaker.
A fellow coach at Army, Wannamaker was given the sweater by Lombardi and had kept it stowed away in his home in nearby Hendersonville since the ’50s. Following his death in 2008, the Wannamaker family donated most of his clothing to Goodwill — the sweater included.
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With the mystery finally solved the sweater was put up for auction, racking up dozens of bids in a matter of hours. In fact, after just a few days, the price had reached well over $20,000.
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The winning bid ultimately came in at $36,000, reaching a final sale price of $43,020 with the addition of a 19.5 percent buyer’s premium. After taxes and fees, Sean and Nikki walked away with more than $20,000 — not a bad end for 58 cents. Word soon made it to Lombardi’s family.
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“It’s kind of hard to fathom spending that kind of money on a sweater, but these are the times we live in,” Vince’s son, Vince Lombardi, Jr., told the Asheville Citizen-Times. Yet in the mind of Heritage’s director of sports auctions Chris Ivy, this was a small price to pay for a piece of history.
“There are two great joys in collecting: owning a relic of true historical significance and the unexpected discovery of something believed to have been lost,” said Ivy. “This is a tale that supplies both in full measure.”
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Word of the Lombardi find sent the picker community into a frenzy, spurring many to begin deep dives into their local thrift clothes bins. Yet if you were to ask any traditional picker where the biggest money is made, they’d all tell you the same thing: junk.
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Antique collectors love getting their hands on piles of junk. If it’s been sitting in an attic, untouched for years, covered in dust with a distinct mold smell, they’ll take it. It’s not mold poisoning that compels them. Many junk lovers are simply looking to hit it big like Sean and Nikki — including Rick Norsigian.
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Rick spent loved a good yard sale. As a carpenter and painter, he enjoyed repurposing antiques. In 2000, he was driving by a garage sale in Fresno when a the most curious thing caught his eye.
After determining the chair was useless, Rick ended up browsing the other items. He opened a few lids and found a collection of film negatives packed into two boxes. They were being sold as a set for $75. Back then, Rick thought the price was much too high, which now makes him laugh.
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Rick haggled with the seller, who’d bought them in the 1940s at a Los Angeles warehouse. Rick pointed out problems with the boxes, such as obvious wear and smoke damage. Reluctantly, the seller knocked the price down to $45, which turned out to be his biggest mistake.
Back at home, Rick counted 65 negatives. With his 65th birthday coming up, he figured it was destiny. Proud of his purchase, Rick stored the boxes safely under his pool table. Once in a while, he’d pull out the negatives to show his friends, knowing full-well what the images depicted.
Having worked there as a kid, Rick had no doubt that these photos were of the world-famous Yosemite mountains. Two years after his purchase, Rick began to suspect more. He decided to move the negatives to a secure bank vault. If he were correct about their origin, he could become a very wealthy man.
Now, if Rick were wrong about his suspicions, there would be legal consequences to pay. But he’d done his research and even consulted with professionals who claimed these prints could actually belong to the father of American photography himself.
Ansel Adams is a beloved name. His black-and-white photos of the American West inspired environmentalist efforts, including the preservation of what are now the US National Parks. He even helped establish photography as an official discipline in higher education. However, his early career faced an unfortunate tragedy.
Years of Ansel Adam’s work from the early 1930s had gone missing from the records. Most experts believed the entirety of these photographs, which would have shown his transition from amateur to master, were lost for good. How could so much of the photographer’s work disappear?
In 1937, there was a fire at Ansel’s studio, burning up thousands of his stills. When Rick claimed these negatives were the missing link to Ansel Adam’s pioneering career, he was met with harsh backlash from every side, including art directors, historians, and the Adams estate itself. Rick needed back up.
Rick hired a lawyer named Arnold Peter who claimed he could make up to $200 million from his find! Arnold quoted many experts, including a former FBI agent and a US attorney, who said, “no reasonable person would have any doubt that these, in fact, were the long-lost images of Ansel Adams.”
You don’t just march into a museum and demand $200 million for your box of junk. Arnold, who was eager to represent Rick, needed to prove authentication. He told reporters they were putting these negatives “on trial.” He found a team of experts in art, forensics, handwriting, and even weather to explore the possibilities.
“It truly is a missing link of Ansel Adams and history and his career,” said art dealer David Streets. “This is going to show the world the evolution of his eye, of his talent, of his skill, his gift, but also his legacy.” The media remained skeptical of these expert opinions. Criticisms started getting personal.
The managing director of the Ansel Adams Trust, who is in charge of copyrighting anything to do with the famed photographer, told news channels that these so-called experts were “crooks” and “con men.” Nevertheless, Rick was determined to win.
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Why would these negatives be left in an LA warehouse? Arnold’s photography expert, Patrick, suspected they were used for teaching purposes, namely “to show students how to not let their negatives be engulfed in a fire.” Still, experts were skeptical. To end the legal battles, Arnold had Rick sign an agreement.
Rick agreed to have a company called Media Partners Global sell the prints on his behalf, barring him from legal responsibility. They were eventually sued, but not before the company made an enormous profit. Once the company was forced to stop using the Ansel Adams name, Rick realized something was off.
News reports indicated the company made $1.8 million in profit, but Rick didn’t get his fair cut. As time went on, more officials denounced the authenticity of the negatives, claiming they actually belonged to a photographer named Earn Brooks. After looking into it, Rick made a troubling discovery.
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The company selling his prints, Media Partners Global, was owned by none other than Arnold Peter! The attorney pocketed a majority of the $1.8 million in profits behind Rick’s back. He used confusing legal jargon to put loopholes in their agreement. Even the people he hired were scammers!
One of the appraisers, David Streets, turned out to be a convicted felon! He, along with the other “experts,” had been hired by Arnold to fake authentication of Rick’s negatives. Naturally, Rick hired new attorneys — ones he actually vetted — to sue Arnold. By that point, it was too late.
Swindled out of the chance to make millions, Rick is limited to selling the prints online only under the title of “The Lost Negatives.” With printing technology these days, however, business isn’t exactly booming. But his misery hasn’t deterred other antique hunters from looking for famous relics.
One of the most special items Antiques Roadshow has ever seen really doesn’t seem like much. In fact, at first glance, it looks like a dime-a-dozen wooden box your grandmother once used to store things like bobby pins or fancy soap…
But this wooden box goes back further than bobby pins. In fact, it goes back even further than your own grandmother. The small box, which can fit in the palm of your hand, is engraved with the year 1785 — almost 235 years ago.
Still, its age isn’t what makes this box so special. The truly captivating characteristic of the box is the numbers engraved around the lid. They made for a beautiful design, but as it turned out, they were much more than just decoration.
When Antiques Roadshow-viewer Paul Wisken started the episode featuring the box, he figured it would be like any other — except it wasn’t. As soon as the mysterious box appeared on screen, he was intrigued. The numbers stood out to him.
Meanwhile, the box’s owner and Antiques Roadshow experts answered the easy questions: It was a Georgian cosmetics box, and as the tradition of that romantic time period goes, it was probably a gift given from a gentleman to his lover.
Moreover, the box was purchased for around 20 pounds (AKA 30 dollars) by the owner’s father. That was all they knew about the box’s lineage of owners. Then, they looked to the outside of the box, where a romantic message was clearly engraved.
“The ring is round and hath no end, so unto my love, now my friend,” the engraving read. What left even the Antiques Roadshow experts stumped, though, were the weird assemblage of numbers on the lid of the box.
The said, Antiques Roadshow expert Jon Baddeley was able to give some insight as to the box’s centuries-old origin. He knew it once held rouge or makeup patches, and Jon was even able to confirm the name of the original gift-giver.
The name was J Jones. As for the numbers, Jon was as flummoxed as everyone else. “You’ve brought in this tiny little box and many many questions,” Jon told the owner. He was forced to say something no historian ever wants to say.
“I think with this one I’m going to be at a bit of a loss,” he said. He estimated the box’s value at $1,500, adding that it had “sentimental value.” Everyone wondered if cracking the code would add to the monetary value, but there was no Rosetta Stone to reveal the answers.
There was Paul, though, who, back at home, had hatched a plan. “As soon as I heard them say ‘we can’t solve it,’ I thought, ‘I bet I can,’” Paul said. As confident as he was, the retired engineer had his work cut out for him.
His natural affinity for numbers and his love of crossword puzzles made this “too much of a challenge to resist, ”as Paul said. He hoped that his lifetime of amateur code-cracking would help him solve the puzzle once and for all.
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The grandfather created a system to match digits with letters, starting with double 8s he assumed represented LLs. From there, his complex number system grew. J Jones kept floating into his mind — what was he trying to conceal?
Even after 5 hours of work, Paul was unconvinced that he had cracked the code. He had a smattering of words, including “small” and “love,” but couldn’t figure out what the message truly said. Days went by, and still Paul was stumped…
Until a few nights later, that is. He woke up “with a click,” as he said, and realized the word that had eluded him: “gift.” As a whole, the message read, “The gift is small but love is all.”
Finally cracking the code was a triumphant moment for Paul, but he was modest about his accomplishment. “It was a beautiful challenge thrown in my lap,” he said, and he even proclaimed himself as “a bit of a nerd.”
The fact that the message could be cracked at all was important, since secret codes are pretty much created to be broken. This certainly brought to light even more questions about the lovers who first exchanged this small gift.
The biggest question is, why hide the lovely message behind code? The only answer that made much sense in this case — or, at least, the answer that had the juiciest implications — was that the couple was in an illicit relationship.
When Antiques Roadshow was informed of Paul’s discovery, they dubbed him a “genius” — and estimated an added 10-20% to the monetary value of the box. Still, Jon thinks that the box’s significance goes beyond money.
He feels that the cracked code adds even more to the box’s incredible story. With a backstory involving mysterious codes, centuries of secrets, and possible illicit lovers, the vintage box spun quite a mystery!
And Paul knew what an exciting backstory could do for an item. Given his interest in antique appraisal, he likely heard the story of the junk-bowl-turned-priceless artifact a New York man bought from a 2007 garage sale.
The piece in question was this beautifully crafted bowl, which they quickly purchased from the yard sale for a measly $3. Much to their surprise, this seemingly ordinary purchase turned out to be the best investment of their lives…
Upon a close inspection of the bowl, you can see there was quite a lot going on with it. Fine details like the lotus patterns carved into the interior were one of many reasons the family placed the bowl on their mantle for all to see.
For six years, the bowl sat on the mantle, relatively untouched, save for the occasional dusting. Eventually, though, the intricacies of the bowl piqued their interest, and the family suspected that they had more than just a $3 cereal bowl on their hands.
They brought their garage sale purchase to various experts, hoping to confirm their suspicions. The couple ended up at Sotheby’s, a broker with a sterling reputation for appraising the finer things in life: art, jewelry, collectibles, and more.
If anyone knew art, it was Sotheby’s. In 2012, the publicly traded corporation managed to auction off Edvard Munch’s most iconic work, The Scream, for almost $120 million. In other words, if the garage shoppers’ bowl was worth something, Sotheby’s would know.
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When the family brought the bowl to Sotheby’s for appraisal, they were told it was a thousand years old—and it actually originated from China’s Song dynasty. Unbeknownst to them, they’d been living with an ancient Chinese artifact all along!
The crazy revelations didn’t stop there. When the auctioneers at Sotheby’s crunched the numbers, they concluded that the bowl was worth anywhere between $200,000 and $300,000! But that was just an estimate…
Before the family made a dime off their $3 garage sale purchase, however, someone would have to pay for it at auction. But with Sotheby’s slinging all kinds of impressive fine art, would a five-inch bowl really make $200,000? They’d have to wait and see.
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The auction took place on March 19, 2013. The family anxiously waited for the live bidding to start, and they didn’t realize just how many people were hungrily eyeing their ancient bowl. One of those people happened to be Giuseppe Eskenazi, a man considered to be the world’s foremost dealer of Chinese art.
Just eight years earlier, Giuseppe proved he wasn’t afraid to shell out some serious money for valuable antiques when he purchased a 14th-century jar for $23.5 million! His next target? That New York family’s Song dynasty bowl.
When the bidding started, there were five prospective buyers, including Giuseppe. They went back and forth, trying to outspend one another on the ornate artifact. After a few minutes of furious bidding, the auction was over. The final bid was astronomical…
Giuseppe managed to win the bowl after dropping $2.2 million on it. The family—who purchased the bowl for $3—definitely made their money back! If it’s hard to believe this modest dish could’ve fetched such a high price, there’s one thing you’re not considering…
This bowl was worth far more than any other because of one particular reason. After the auction, CNN’s Richard Roth spoke with both Giuseppe Eskenaz and the Sotheby’s auctioneer, Henry Howard Sneyd, to find out why…
When asked what made the bowl so special, Giuseppe put it simply: “There’s only one other,” he said. “It’s also in perfect condition; considering its past history, it’s a miracle.” No kidding. The bowl even survived a garage sale!
Giuseppe continued explaining what made the bowl so unique. “It’s decorated both on the inside and outside, which is also very, very rare,” he said. Auctioneer Henry echoed his sentiments…
“The moment the box [containing the bowl] lid was opened,” Henry said, “I knew that I was looking at something completely special.” He described the carver’s precise and beautiful work as “a little bit like Mozart.” Talk about high praise!
As a final note, Giuseppe made it clear just how special the bowl was. “I can’t think of another bowl—except for [the one at] the British Museum [pictured]—that is as sophisticated as this one.” Again, this was no cereal bowl.
So how did a bowl so priceless end up as $3 yard sale purchase? That remained a mystery. The bowl, Henry said, “has come out of the blue in terms of being a complete discovery.” But for as much as it sold for, you couldn’t put a price tag on the seller’s reaction…
“I got back to my desk after the auction,” Henry recalled, “and I found an email, which was in capital letters: WOW. And then a new line: WOW. And then a line of exclamation marks.” And with a profit of over $2 million, there couldn’t be a more fitting reaction!
Turns out there’s plenty of old items lying around, just waiting to be noticed for there value! And apparently, it’s a lot easier to find these things than most people think. You might have these undiscovered treasures laying around your own home!
1. When students Skyer Ashworth and Talia Rappa were looking through clothes at a thrift store in Florida, they couldn’t help but notice six NASA spacesuits on the rack. They purchased the official 1980s-era suits for a mere 20 cents each, only to discover later that they were actually worth much more: $5,000 per suit!
2. Zachary Bodish was immediately drawn to this reproduction Picasso poster when he spotted it at a thrift store near Columbus, Ohio, and he purchased it for $14. Not long after, he discovered that it wasn’t a replica at all, but a linocut made by Picasso himself. He eventually sold it to a private buyer for $7,000!
3. Vinyl collector Warren Hill always kept his eyes peeled for rare records selling at New York City street sales, though he never had much luck. That is, until he stumbled upon a Velvet Underground test-pressing that was only intended to be seen by the record label and the distributor. He later sold it on eBay for a stunning $25,000!
4. Jennifer Thompson purchased the Nintendo game Stadium Events from a North Carolina thrift store for just $8. Little did she know that it was highly coveted by collectors. She couldn’t believe it when someone purchased it from her for $25,000!
5. A German student returned home with a $215 foldable couch she’d picked up at a flea market, only to have a rare painting fall from its crease. Created between 1605 and 1620 by an unknown artist, it depicted Italian master Carlo Saraceni. Despite the nameless artist, it eventually auctioned for $27,630!
6. A woman shopping at a thrift store in Somerset, England, was happy to pay $3 for this metal bowl. When she brought it to have appraised, the experts instantly knew it was a Chinese tripod censer that dated to the 18th century Qianlong period. That could certainly help explain why it eventually fetched $30,000 at auction!
7. When Zach Norris went to a Phoenix thrift store in search of a cheap golf trolley, he got much more than he bargained for. He forked over $5.99 for a neat-looking watch by Jaeger-LeCoultre. It wound up being worth a whopping $35,000!
8. A couple from Knoxville, Tennessee, Sean and Rikki McEvoy, randomly purchased a black sports sweater from a thrift store. They had no idea it had once belonged to famed football coach Vince Lombardi. They paid just 58 cents for the item, though it was worth $43,000!
9. When an Australian man purchased this pretty item for $3 from a shop in Sydney, he had no idea it was actually an incredibly rare Chinese libation cup made of rhino horn. He later earned a cool $60,000 when the cup was auctioned by Sotheby’s.
10. In 1994, an avid golfer walked into a Toronto thrift store and found an eye-catching green jacket selling for just $5. The jacket turned out to be an authentic jacket from a 1950s Augusta National! Even without the golfer’s name stitched onto it, a memorabilia company purchased it for the high price of $139,349.
11. One British man spotted this watch at a parking lot sale and paid $35 for it. He was elated when he found out that it was the exact same watch Sean Connery wore when he starred as James Bond in the 1965 film Thunderball. Even better: he sold it for a staggering $145,000!
12. When this painting was donated to the Columbia-Williamette Goodwill, the staff priced it to sell for $10. It wasn’t long before someone recognized it as a watercolor by American artist Frank Weston Benson. It later sold for an astonishing $165,002!
13. A person was shopping at a flea market in Brooklyn when they stumbled upon a $15 necklace designed by American sculptor Alexander Calder. Though Calder wasn’t known for his jewelry, they couldn’t turn down such a deal. It’s a good thing they didn’t, because it turned out to be worth $267,750!
14. London man John Richard paid only $30 for this Andy Warhol print bag—featuring the likeness of Elvis Presley—at a local thrift store. After it was appraised, he learned that only 10 were ever made by designer Philip Treacy, which explains why it is rumored to be worth a grand total of $480,000!
15. When this item was donated to a charity shop in England, staff members quickly realized it might be worth something. As it turned out, it was a bamboo pot created between 1662 and 1672 by Gu Jue, a famed Chinese artist. Even though it needed to be restored, it sold for a whopping $500,000!
16. Claire Wiegan-Beckmann purchased a card table from a garage sale for $25 in the 1960s. Years later, she decided she would have it appraised on the TV program Antiques Roadshow. That’s when she discovered it was from the 1700s and worth $541,500!
17. In the 1980s, a ring caught a shopper’s eye at a parking lot sale at a London hospital. He purchased it for $14, and after wearing it for five years, he decided to have it officially appraised. That’s when he learned it was a 26.27 carat diamond! He eventually sold it for a staggering $915,000.
18. An Indiana man paid $30 for this painting hoping to use it to cover a hole in his wall. One day, while playing a board game based on art auctions, he noticed that one of the cards featured a similar painting. That’s when he discovered it was the “Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth” by Martin Johnson Heade… and it was worth $1.2 million!
19. In 1989, a man purchased a painting for $4 because he liked the frame. He removed the painting to put something else inside and discovered an original print of the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence. It was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1991 for $2,420,000!
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