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Treasure or Trash

Don’t Throw Out That Heirloom: How to Uncover Hidden Treasure at Home

Alaina Tweddale

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?

Start Online

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.

Comic Books

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

Musical Instruments

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.

Rare Coins

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

Collectible Dolls

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:

  • Painted
  • Realistic with expressive faces
  • Like-new condition

Sports Memorabilia

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

Antiques

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 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.

Before packing away sentimental items, be sure to carefully store and label each item so future generations can fully grasp the history behind the treasure they’ve just discovered.

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.

65 Responses to "Don’t Throw Out That Heirloom: How to Uncover Hidden Treasure at Home"
    • Flo Shippy | June 12, 2021 at 1:00 pm

      I have a collection of H O trains and I would like to find the valves to these trains. Where can I find the valve on these. Some date back to the 1960’s.

      I also have many 78 RPM records with the original covers on them. They are all in very good condition.
      I woulds like to know where to search for these as they are part of an estate. They also go back to the 1960 era.
      .

      • Ken Price | July 24, 2021 at 3:11 pm

        On your records Discogs.com is a good place to see what records have actually sold for in recent years. YOu mention your records are 78s “going back to the 60s” . The last 78s were made in the late 1950s. Ypu may actually 33rpm record albums- the ones with cardboard jackets with dedicated art. Most 33rpm vinyl records are 12 inches in diameter and flexible. Most 78s are very hard and brittle and 10 inches in diameter. Value depends on conditions and the artist and title. 99% of 78s have little value but earyl jazz, folk and hillbilly formt he 1930s or before can have value. Also blues form any time period and rock, R&B and Doo wop form the 1950s on 78.

      • Elizabeth Cyran | July 24, 2021 at 6:19 pm

        We do estate sales. 78’s a tough to get rid of. The cover will have more value than the disk. No one can even play them anymore. But the cover will only be significant if it is a very famous singer, one of they hit tunes, etc.

      • Rajesh d Chauhan | July 26, 2021 at 4:17 am

        Five rupees old not

    • marge degraw | June 12, 2021 at 1:24 pm

      I have a old scrapbook of old 100 yr old advertisements. I would like to know where or who to contact regarding any potential worth if this would be something you could help me with. Thank you

      • Elizabeth Cyran | July 24, 2021 at 6:22 pm

        We do estate sales. Ephemera, or paper collectibles depend first on content and then on condition. If you have some original Coca Cola advertising, they are worth something. If these are ads that someone ripped out of a magazine, they sometimes will bring only a few dollars. With many collectables, it’s about the content.

    • Carolyn Jackson | June 16, 2021 at 2:25 pm

      I have an ash tray, if you will. It was used by my granddaddy, who died in the early 60’s. It’s made from some kind of mud looking clay maybe. Part of it is made to hold cigarettes. The top of the cigarette holder has a impression of a dog on it; connected by two circles on each side that are ash trays. I’m sure it was given to him by someone. He was a share cropper and had no money to buy anything. I haven’t thrown it out because of my love for my granddaddy.

      • Elizabeth Cyran | July 24, 2021 at 6:25 pm

        Some of these handcrafted items can be worth something under the genre called ‘tramp art.’ Or sometimes they are worth nothing, if it was something done by a kid in school. Trouble is, finding someone to appraise an item like that might be hard and too costly for what it is. It was your granddads, love it and use it – you can always put peanuts in it or candy!

    • Cris Matthew | July 7, 2021 at 7:51 pm

      Great Post. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Scott Schrauth | July 12, 2021 at 4:03 pm

      I have a old Emmit Kelly clown doll with the clothes intact but could use some sewing, and still has both of his shoes , and was given to me when i was born in 1961 i have the doll wrapped in plastic so its all together its 14 ” tall i would really like to find out how much it could be worth or be contacted by a company or person who would specialize in these type of dolls thank you

      • Elizabeth Cyran | July 24, 2021 at 6:25 pm

        Search Ebay and Etsy, these are daily common items.

    • Claudia Swank | July 22, 2021 at 10:24 am

      I have a skeleton key that used to open the door to our house. Are they worth anything at all!!!!

      • Les Lovash | July 24, 2021 at 9:58 am

        Lots of folks collect those old keys . Put it up on Ebay or Marketplace it will SELL !!

      • Elizabeth Cyran | July 24, 2021 at 6:26 pm

        Some people do collect old keys, especially if they are ornate or interesting. All in all, I have never seen them go for more than a few dollars each.

    • Claudette Dale | July 23, 2021 at 11:33 am

      I havve a cabbage patch doll that came with a tooth brush. she has a tooth, still in box ,

    • Jayne Resnick | July 24, 2021 at 9:48 am

      I have a large doll collection which I am anxious to sell! If anyone is interested, or knows someone who is, please contact me! Thanks!

    • Sandee | July 24, 2021 at 9:59 am

      I have a few items from “Willie Davenport”. Basic descriptions: Golf shirt he had a “golf tour”,personal invitation to an event,receipt from a friendship item he bought me and maybe more. He was a “5” time Olympic Medalist,served in the Army National Guard’s “, a friend and passed away in 2003(?) from a heart attack,I just saw him before this happened. I was just wondering of any value as I’m about to “clear” out some stuff that I’ve held onto for so long. Thank you

    • Doug Ramsdale | July 24, 2021 at 10:02 am

      A 16th century Chippendale desk? Wow, Thomas Chippendale was born in the 18th century.

      You devalue everything you say by statements like this.

      • Extra Mile Staff | July 25, 2021 at 9:36 pm

        Doug – Thanks for reading and helping us correct that typo.

      • Sandra Bradley | July 26, 2021 at 10:18 am

        I have a piano that is way old. I’ve purchased items that was made out the wood that this piano is made of. Very old. It was old when I was young and now I’m old. Do you think it has any value or should I just leave it. It’s has no tuning but the wood my be of use to wood cutter or the like.

    • Karen J Burwell | July 24, 2021 at 10:21 am

      I have a ca. 1960 Matty mattel doll. When his clothes were falling off, someone made new clothes for him, but discarded the original clothes. Additionally, she (horribly!) CUT off the string that I’d pull to make Matty talk! Can that be fixed, and is he worth anything?

    • Pat Seitz | July 24, 2021 at 10:22 am

      I have a collection of postcards of my grandmother”s from the 1890’s and early 1900’s. How can I discover their worth?

    • Tanya Kelsey | July 24, 2021 at 10:24 am

      I treasure the book I found of my Grandfathers. Childs Life of Christ – The new large type edition. In side is an inscription to my Grandfather from his Mother and dated December 25, 1903. Inside the book is a construction type paper that is labeled THANKSGIVING November 25 1909 it has drawings and cout out pictures of Thanksgiving he made when he was in the third grade. What treasures.

      • Extra Mile Staff | July 25, 2021 at 9:32 pm

        Tanya – How nice to have!

    • Cheryl | July 24, 2021 at 10:45 am

      I have two old cookie jars. One is a pig and the other is a churn. I don’t know if they are worth anything but I sure would like to know.

    • Jean Olson | July 24, 2021 at 11:40 am

      I love this article..Hartford customer for years

      • Extra Mile Staff | July 25, 2021 at 8:43 pm

        Jean – Thanks for reading and thanks for being a customer!

    • Ginger | July 24, 2021 at 11:44 am

      What about Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars? Any value to those?

    • Dee | July 24, 2021 at 11:44 am

      All you folks wanting to know the value of things: eBay is a great resource. Go to Advanced Search and search completed auctions to see actual selling prices for your item. You can also search online; items such as HO trains have well documented values. A local bookstore or library will also have price guides, but beware as these become obsolete quickly. Good luck all!

    • Terance A Prokosh | July 24, 2021 at 11:47 am

      How do you get in contact for someone to visit your home

    • Barbara Keller | July 24, 2021 at 11:47 am

      I have a painting about 20 X25 of a nude baby angel lying in the woods. My grandmother painted it. It is unsigned, and I know very little about her except her name and dates of birth and death. She died in 1917. The original wood frame disintegrated long ago and I have it in a frame that does not do anything for it. The painting is valuable to me and I have it prominently displayed in my home.

    • Anna Bowlds | July 24, 2021 at 11:53 am

      I have a C&O Railroad switch key and C&O conductors lapel pin.
      Would like them to go to someone interested in railroads and railroading or a museum.

    • Anna Bowlds | July 24, 2021 at 11:57 am

      I have a 1938 Harvard Yearbook in good condition. Would like it to go to someone who had family graduating that year or other reason of interest. My friend who passed has no family for it to go to.

    • ROBERT S FERRARA | July 24, 2021 at 12:05 pm

      I have a seat from the Yankee stadium renovation that was done back in 1974. Any idea what it is worth?

    • Elaine Johnson | July 24, 2021 at 12:17 pm

      I have a large collection of Madame Alexander dolls. Where would I start to find out their worth/value?

    • Colleen Raucci | July 24, 2021 at 12:25 pm

      I have a wind up record player that is in great condition, It still works, in fact inside when the top is opened it says it is a talking machine, not a record player, from what I understand it’s one of the first ones of the time period, I very much would appreciate an estimate

    • SANDRA L SUJKA | July 24, 2021 at 12:59 pm

      I have a Borax plastic mule train complete with horses and wagon, never put together in original boxes. Plus other items, plastic not put together. Is there any value in this?

    • Priscilla | July 24, 2021 at 1:13 pm

      I have a 2012 Red convertible Maza Miata. Perfect condition.33 thousand miles.
      $15,000.00

      • Priscilla | July 24, 2021 at 1:16 pm

        2012 Red covn Mazda Miata. $15,000.00

    • Patricia Beutner | July 24, 2021 at 1:13 pm

      I have a large collection of White Ironstone and a very nice collection of Sleepy Eye pottery and stone ware all in very good condition

    • esther leon | July 24, 2021 at 1:52 pm

      found this information helpful, have done some of what I read but still very helpful. thank you

    • John W Jones | July 24, 2021 at 1:52 pm

      I was born during WW2 and my mother saved all my family’s ration coupon books after war was over. I have kept them and often wondered if they had any value as collectibles or otherwise.

    • Claudio martinez | July 24, 2021 at 2:27 pm

      I have an old freestanding cupboard needs work also old doors

    • Pamela Wilson | July 24, 2021 at 2:53 pm

      Hello, I have glassware and plates that were purchased/owned in the 1920s and 1930s; how can I have these items appraised?

    • Mary Ann Wenz | July 24, 2021 at 2:56 pm

      Thank you very much for the information contained in the article. Can you tell me the best way to determine the value of an old stamp collection?

    • Eugene Figy | July 24, 2021 at 4:56 pm

      I HAVE SEVERAL VERY OLD GLASS PAPER WEIGHTS FROM AN OLD HISTORICAL HOME I PURCHASED. SOME HAVE UNIQUE INTENAL DESIGNS. WOULD LIKE TO FIND OUT THEIR VALUE

    • Cheryl Anspach | July 24, 2021 at 5:08 pm

      I have a coin collection, many pieces of Tiffin glass, over 100 pieces of Roseville pottery that my father left me. He just passed.

    • Marsha Lockhart | July 24, 2021 at 5:52 pm

      I would like to know what the market is like for a leopard real fur coat and sables (like the women wore around their neck, the mouth clipped onto the tail to hold it in place).. Also, cedar chests and where would I start, to unload these 70-80 years old items.

    • Elizabeth Cyran | July 24, 2021 at 6:35 pm

      This was a great article. As someone who does estate sales, and buys and sells antiques and collectables, people need to know that there are trends of what if valuable at any given time. Best rule of thumb is that what will be most popular and command the money is anything the prominent generation with the highest incomes will want from their childhood. Today, ’80’s and ’90’s toys are hot. However, there have been some items that have been desirable for some time – mid century modern furniture from the 50’s and 60’s, think Brady Bunch. Clothing from that time period. Anything heavy and chunky is out, today’s buyers are living in smaller places and want less clutter, which is why when they are left with grandma’s home, they think nothing of throwing her mahogany dining room set from the 1930’s into the trash. Or the Wedgewood china. I am trying to change their minds.

    • Barbara Flournoy | July 24, 2021 at 7:38 pm

      My mom purchased tons of commemorative and other coins over the years from television and solicitations. How can we determine the value?

    • Marcia Klein | July 24, 2021 at 8:40 pm

      I have a box filled with Elvis memorabilia. Where can I find the value?

      • Elizabeth Cyran | July 26, 2021 at 8:31 am

        Ebay and Esty are the best way to see what they go for. Don’t look at the listed prices, look at the SOLD prices.

    • Irene Johnson | July 24, 2021 at 8:57 pm

      I have many “antique” items that I have no idea of their value. This info was very helpful, and I will ask about my 1898 upright piano, school desk with attached chair seat, salt and pepper shaker collections, etc. thank you!

      • Elizabeth Cyran | July 26, 2021 at 8:33 am

        Regretfully an upright piano in this day and age has little value. Anything big, hard to move are tough sells. Many people jsut give them away. If you love it, keep it and enjoy it. the school desks are very common, people buy them for display purposes, or, maybe your local historical society might like that one and you can take a tax deduction. In my area, you are lucky to get $40 for one.

      • Elizabeth Cyran | July 26, 2021 at 8:34 am

        Salt and pepper shakers are things people collect. Older the better! Check Ebay for prices. A large collection might sell better split up.

    • Wayne Young | July 25, 2021 at 12:44 am

      Can we get permission to republish at portofharlem.net?

      • Extra Mile Staff | July 25, 2021 at 9:43 pm

        Wayne – Thanks for reading. We allow up to 100 words with a link back to the article, but not a full republish of our articles. Thanks!

    • Kathleen Mautz | July 25, 2021 at 2:28 am

      I have a vase that is about 4 inches across and maybe 2 inches high. It was recovered from my home which was destroyed by fire. This old vase/bowl is the only thing that I was able to find still in one piece. I believe it was my grandmothers but could be my great grandmothers. To me it’s a treasure!

      • Extra Mile Staff | July 25, 2021 at 9:45 pm

        Kathleen – Truly priceless!

    • Chris Niemiec | July 25, 2021 at 7:11 am

      My dad collected coins. Where can I find out if any of them are worth more than their current value?

      • Sandra Bradley | July 26, 2021 at 10:25 am

        I have a collection of very old
        coins and wood burning stoves and pots used over the fire to “cook” or “wash. “. Any value !?

      • Elizabeth Cyran | July 26, 2021 at 2:04 pm

        There are many sites that will tell you the value of old coins. Most of these sites will tell you that a 1898 Morgan silver dollar is worth, but with coins, condition is very important. As a circulated coin the Morgan’s value is around $35. BUT if it is uncirculated, the value can range from a low of $62 to a high of $287 if it is in mint condition. Like stamps, comic books and anything paper, coins are all about how they look. There are companies that grade coins and will send you them back in a little cardboard under plastic, and with a certificate. I dont’ recommend you grading any coin that is not very rare or in great condition. The price of getting a coin graded is $20-$65 appending on what company does it. The internet is your best resource for coin information, values, rareness. I have a pile of ‘old’ coins. All of them have condition issues, so I would never have them graded. But they defiantly have way more value than the face! Remember that silver and gold is going up and those old coins, even if they are in terrible shape, will keep going up with the price of the precious metal in them.

    • Nancy Nersesian | July 26, 2021 at 3:35 pm

      I have an “Official League” Diamond, 5oz, 9IN., Cushioned Cork Center, DOL-A
      Baseball signed by Jim Bunning, American Professional baseball pitcher who was the sole Major League Baseball athlete to have been elected to both the U.S. Senate (KY) and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (Born 1942; died, 2017). The second signature on the baseball is Pete Rose. Is there a market for this?

    • nancy goodspeed | July 27, 2021 at 6:36 am

      salt and pepper collection(about 150 sets) any collectors?

    • Pat | July 30, 2021 at 9:13 pm

      This gives us a lot of HOPE, BUT VERY LITTLE HOW

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