In early 2021 at an auction, a family sold 12 rare autographs of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. If one didn’t know any better, the two yellowed pages—excerpted from an old logbook—could easily have been confused for valueless scrap paper. Instead, the document was a rare surviving artifact of King’s eight-day Alabama incarceration in 1963. During this time he wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” his famous manifesto on non-violent civil disobedience.
The pages sold for more than $130,000 at the auction.
This historical treasure could easily have wound up in the trash. A jailor was ordered to throw the logbook away but instead recognized its significance. In defiance of orders, he saved the archive. It was then kept by his family for decades.
Trash or Treasure? Figure Out an Item’s Worth
Still, not all valuables eventually wind up where they’ll be treasured or properly valued. Old papers are stacked in piles. Jewelry is stashed in closets. Furniture is relegated to the attic. How can you tell if an item has value or if it’s simply been stored for long past its prime?
The previous owners of King’s signatures started with the online price guide WorthPoint, which helps owners research the history and value of antiques, art and vintage collectibles. Other online appraisal valuators like valuemystuff, mearto, and Barnebys will value your item for $30 or less.
Schedule an Appointment With an Appraiser
For rare, exceptional or highly valuable items, consider an in-person visit with a well-seasoned pro. Many auction houses offer free community appraisal days, where a professional will offer an estimate of the value of your item’s worth. For a more accurate assessment, you can schedule a one-on-one appointment, which typically costs between $200 to $400.
Partner With an Auction House
Ultimately, an item is worth what a buyer will pay for it. A well-established auction house will know how to garner interest in your item and then sell it to the highest available bidder. King’s autographs were sold at Hake’s Auctions.
Protect Your Possessions
Once you know your item’s value, make sure it’s covered by your current homeowners or renters insurance policy. Many policies cover valuables only up to a certain dollar amount ($1,500 theft coverage for jewelry, for example). If the monetary value of your new treasure exceeds that amount, consider valuable items blanket coverage, which can add additional protection in case of unexpected loss or damage.
What Should You Look for When Cleaning a House?
It’s not always easy to eyeball an item and see if it holds value. That’s often true if you’re cleaning out your own home or helping with that of a loved one. Even so, certain household items can sometimes be worth quite a bit.
Favored by kids for nearly 80 years, comic books—particularly early-issue installments—can sell for a surprising amount of cash. In 2014, Action Comics #1—a 1938 issue featuring Superman’s first appearance—sold for a record-breaking $3.25 million. While most comic books won’t sell for that astronomical amount, many late-issue editions can be quite valuable. That’s because some Baby Boomers grew up to buy, trade and sell tales of their favorite heroes and villains.
Which comics are most likely to hold value? Vincent Zurzolo, co-owner of the New York-based Metropolis Collectible, suggests keeping an eye out for issues that:
- Feature a character’s first appearance or death
- Appeared in a hit movie or tv show
- Are rare and in excellent condition
A professional violin can be worth thousands of dollars, but some exceptional instruments, like the famed Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius, made in 1727 and stolen from noted concert violinist Erica Morini in 1995, can be worth millions.
The most valuable musical instruments tend to be both rare and in top condition. An appraiser can help you find out if your instrumental find is over 300 years old, handmade or rare.
A few years ago, a woman in Texas found a penny that the Professional Coin Grading Service later valued at $24,000. The rare 1969-S Lincoln, Doubled Die Obverse cent is exceptional because it features an extensive double striking error. Coins of this type are typically recycled before they ever leave the Mint facility, but a few rare pieces make it out into circulation. They’re exceedingly rare and, therefore, valuable.
A coin’s value is often based on its grading, which goes by:
- How well the coin was made
- How much wear it’s weathered
- Its luster
Dolls aren’t just for kids. These often-times collector’s items can be worth a significant amount—if you find the right buyer. Rare and vintage Barbie dolls can sell for around $8,000. One mint-condition original 1959 Barbie sold at auction for $27,450.
Even that staggering amount pales in comparison to the highest price paid for an antique doll—$335,500—for a 19th-century Antoine Edmund Rochard creation, an iconic symbol of the golden age of French dolls.
Collectible dolls high in demand include 19th- and early 20th-century French, German and English porcelain varieties, particularly if they are:
- Realistic with expressive faces
- Like-new condition
For some sports fans, collecting memorabilia can be more important than the sport itself. That may be why Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees jersey from the 1920 season sold for more than $4.4 million in 2012. Or why the boxing gloves worn by Muhammad Ali during a 1965 fight with Floyd Patterson fetched $1.1 million.
Even an authentic autographed baseball or football can sell for hundreds of dollars, depending on the item’s condition, who signed it and how rare that athlete’s signature is. The most valuable sports memorabilia tend to be signed by:
- A Hall of Famer
- An award or championship winner
- An athlete who passed away
- A player who no longer signs autographs.
Well-preserved furniture, jewelry and silverware can be worth a pretty penny. This is particularly true once an item has reached a century in age. This is generally the professionally agreed-upon guideline for an item’s entry into the antique category.
A 17th-century Persian rug sold for $33.8 million in 2013, for example, in part because it displayed a rare pattern technique and was properly stored and maintained. A rare Patek Philippe pocket watch sold for $24 million in 2014. And a 16th-century Chippendale desk—owned by one of Kentucky’s original settlers—sold for almost half a million dollars in 2017.
Antique prices tend to ebb and flow over time, especially as a particular item, style or even antiquing itself falls in and out of fashion. Even so, desirability is just one predictor of value. Quality, rarity, and condition are also important factors.
Anything With Personal or Sentimental Value
While they might not amass a fortune at auction, items with personal significance are worth keeping around, even if they wind up in the bottom of a drawer or back of the attic. Future generations may be thrilled to find that faded photo of their great-great-uncle fishing off the family pier, their grandmother’s wedding ring or old film reels of a loved one’s wedding.
In fact, the same goes for valuables of significance. Before you stash that vintage comic or out-of-fashion pair of pearl earrings, make sure the item is properly stored, so it can withstand the test of time. While you’re at it, store it with a note explaining the item’s historical context and value, even if the value is purely sentimental. Include your personal story and how the cherished item fits in with your family biography. You may not be storing a landmark piece of American history, but proper preservation and documentation can help you or a loved one identify which items to keep and treasure—possibly for generations to come.
What unusual, sentimental or valuable things have you found when cleaning out your home or that of a loved one? Were you surprised to learn its value? Did you find a treasured family heirloom you’ll pass down to the next generation? Let us know in the comments.