Secrets of summer treasure hunting in New England

You loved that vintage vase when you bought it years ago, but now it doesn’t quite light up the room the way it used to and may be time to move on.

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Good bye, dear old friend

Don’t get down on yourself.  Sometimes love isn’t meant to last.  Lucky for you, it is vintage-stuff-getting season (and it is ALWAYS vintage-selling-stuff season).  Here’s a quick guide to help you find that treasure of your dreams (or maybe the big score you never knew you couldn’t live without).


Yard sales:

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Of course this would come first.  Sunny Saturday means that driveways and lawns are filled with the I-just-don’t-love-you-anymore vases and vintage finds that have been hiding in grandma’s attic since the 50s.

And yes – yard sales are very hit-or-miss.  Here’s a few tips on how to avoid the sales filled with kids’ plastic toys and win the day with a carload full of YES!

  • Look for sales in older, established neighborhoods. It may be tempting to hit the multi-family sale on the cul-de-sac filled with McMansions but newer homes are filled with newer families and newer stuff.
  • Get the Yard Sale Treasure Map app.  Don’t even leave the house without it.  It lets you map a GPS course so you don’t have to squint at fluorescent signs nailed to telephone poles to figure out your next stop.   Best thing ever:  have a half hour to kill before you get the kids from soccer?  Flip open the app and it will locate sales based on your current location.

This rug and wacky dinette set are two of my all time brag-o-lot babies from yard sales:

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This ratty rug is perfect for my kitchen.

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Aqua dinette, beehive hair-dos, jello and the Beach Boys…

Estate Sales

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Estate sale score: Watercolor figure study

Wait wait! Come back here.  Don’t get scared off by these gems.  It took me a while to push aside my Yankee-thrifty brain and start haunting these sales and boy am I happy I did.  Keep these things in mind to soothe your soul while you get ready to hit your first sale:

  • Yes, they are run by pros who are in it to profit but don’t forget that their primary objective is to GET RID OF THE INVENTORY. Show up at the end of the day and you WILL get a mighty good deal.  Like an antique Italian carved side chair tagged for $275 that floated out at the 11th hour for $25.  No haggling – just offer and OK and bye.
  • “Estate” is just a fancy word for “house full of stuff that someone has collected over the past 30 plus years”. And “sale” either means “mom died and I just can’t figure out what to do with this stuff” or “I’m moving to Florida, get rid of it all”.   So really estate sale just means get rid of old cool stuff and don’t leave any of it behind.  Feel better?    A single household usually has a single aesthetic, so it the homeowner’s taste is up your alley you win!  If you aren’t into tiger strips and chrome you can leave after a few minutes of browsing.
  • Go to EstateSales.net to find listings in your area. All of the major pro sellers list here.

Auctions:

Again, trust me on this. Sure sometimes you’ll see a silver spoon sell for $1000 and you’re like whaaat? But you will also see huge antique, cottage painted armoires in PERFECT condition (and totally huggable) sell for $123 at a major auction house.

Are we going to be serious about vintage scores?  Here’s what you need to know:

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Armoire sold for $123 at a recent Skinner Discovery Sale. Seriously.  $123.  I still sigh every time I think of it.

  • If you live in the Boston area, you MUST get familiar with Skinner’s Discovery Auctions. Go online to see what items have sold for in the past and to preview (and bid on!) upcoming lots.  Bring your checkbook with a check already made out for $123 and you won’t be sorry.
  • Another great auction house is on Cape Cod:  Sandwich Auction House.  Next time you’re all whiny because you have a rainy day on your vacation, you’ll thank me for tipping you off to this place.  I went to my very first auction here twenty-odd years ago (if you ask me exactly how many years, I will have to pinch you)
  • Look for auctions at moving companies. Lots of people abandon their stuff with moving companies (why is this? One of life’s great mysteries) and they put stuff under the gavel every few months.  I promise it isn’t like those “storage” sales you see on TV.  Much more laid back. And the company just wants this stuff GONE so you will get a good price.
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Gold etarge from Habitat for Humanity ReStore

Consignment shops and thrift stores:
Sure these places are open year-round but inventory is high in the summer with the spoils of spring cleaning.  Here are the basics for winning at consignment shopping:

  • Learn how to read price tags to figure out discounts. These stores will only hold inventory for a seller for a few months, and the longer a piece sits on the floor the cheaper it gets.
  • If you love something but think the price is way off, ask the sales people if the seller is willing to accept offers. If so, the store will contact the seller to make the offer.  More often than not they’ll say yes.
  • If you are scouting something specific ask the staff to contact you if something comes in. My husband is into vintage guitars and I can’t jam enough Florence Knoll coffee tables into my house.  I get a call from a local shop whenever something along those lines comes in – I get first dibs and they avoid having to find a place on the floor for it.

My best tip?  Find a Habitat for Humanity ReStore near you – good stuff, low prices and proceeds help build awesome homes for great people.

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Artichokes! Burlap! Pair! Do I need to say more?

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Just a grumpy old trout posing in murky water

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Print was 10 cents, frame was $1. That’s less than a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

If you’re still with me then we can be friends forever so I will let you in on the two BEST secrets I have:

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Vintage brass nautical lamp 

Town Dumps and Harvard University

What do town dumps and Hahhhvaaahhhd have in common?  One simple thing:  you can have all of their cast-offs for free.  Yep! Free!  This is where salvage shopping meets serious sustainability.  One step from the landfill and – whoooosh! – in you swoop to find the yahoo moment of the month.

  • Ah, dumps (or Transfer Stations – whatever – we don’t have to be all PC here – we’re friends) these uniquely New England havens for discarded clutter are the unsung heroes of vintage happiness. Most towns have an area of household cast-offs where you can find lamps, pottery, old paintings and even vintage clothing.  Some really awesome towns have scrap metal piles.  Let me say this about scrap metal piles – sunburst clock, Curtis Jere sculpture, andirons, bronze statue, iron garden gate.  Do I seem crazy now?  Seriously, this stuff is all bound for a landfill and the staffers know this – ask to pick and you’ll likely get a yes as long as you promise that you aren’t going to toss an illegal bag of garbage into their dumpsters.

Feast your eyes on the amazingness that bubbles up from my local dump’s metal pile (don’t hate, don’t hate…):

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Swingin’ sixities Curtis Jere wall hanging

Dump metal pile score: vintage gate

Chicken fencing gate thingy

Dump find: folded hanging light fan

Antique fan light skirt – folded in half and patina’d to death

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Trio of vintage metal shield back lawn chairs

OK – scroll up and look at those last few things again.  Doesn’t it do your vintage-y heart good?

  • Harvard University – another beloved New England institution that is the polar opposite from the ol’ dump tradition. There is a friendly green-initiative competition between Harvard and Yale to see who can recycle the most stuff.   So every Thursday at 11, Harvard gives away (for free! no strings attached!) anything that they don’t need.  Leftover dorm stuff, lab equipment, office supplies, linen – I seriously can’t name it all.  Best time to go is in May and June when students have moved out and the maintenance staff is all like “what are we going to do with all this stuff they left behind???”  Get on over to the Harvard University Recycling and Surplus Center and take advantage of this secret made in sustainability heaven.

So now you have all the resources you need to find another vintage vase to love.  You will find it. Have faith.  But what about getting rid of what you already have?  You could go the consignment store route, but power up the internet to get the most bang for your buck:

  • Craisglist – easy way to sell locally. Take a good picture, be flexible on price and remember to sell safely.  If your piece is too big to take to a public place to meet the buyer and they have to come to your house, always have a friend there with you.  And if you can borrow your neighbor’s big, barky dog do it.
  • Chairish – the best place to sell your large vintage stuff. Their white glove service puts them head and shoulders above other eOnline eSales eOutlets that will go eUnnamed.
  • Etsy – go to for selling small vintage stuff. Set up a shop, take a nice picture, figure out how to pack things to ship.  It’s pretty much that easy.

So don’t be afraid to move on from that vase you used to love.  Think of collecting vintage this way:  you are a steward of this piece and should care for it until it is time to move it along.  Likely the object of your desire is older than you – take it from the hands of its current owner, live with it and enjoy it until it is time to pass it along to its next caretaker.

It brought you joy once, and it will bring someone else joy in the future.

Happy shopping.

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