Happy Hunting: 7 Gems That Could Be Hidden Amid the Junk at Estate Sales
The idea of spending your precious weekend visiting estate sales just so you can sift through piles of dusty castoffs might seem tedious to the uninitiated. But if you have the fortitude, shopping estate sales—where just about an entire home's belongings are up for purchase—can yield a trove of home decor treasures. That is, at least once you learn which pieces are worth your time and effort.
Want to know how to spot those hidden gems quickly? We've got you covered. Our experts have ID'd seven statement-making prizes you should keep your eyes on this weekend.
1. Solid wood pieces
Whether it's a 100-year-old farm table or a set of Mid-Century Modern chairs, try to seek out solid wood furniture at every estate sale you visit, urges Pablo Solomon, a vintage furniture expert.
"Many of today's pieces are made from pressed wood with junky veneers," he laments. Seek out furniture with good joinery made from walnut, cherry, or olive wood, he recommends.
Heidi Ferguson, owner of Stitches & Rust, an antiques shop in West Palm Beach, FL, agrees. "Pay attention to solid wood pieces (dressers, hutches, nightstands, tables) from the 1940s to the 1970s," she says. Weight matters, so try to lift the item you're considering. If it's heavy, it's a quality piece.
2. Wingback or club chairs
Keep an eye out for upholstered wingbacks or leather club chairs, both of which are lucky finds. Sure, you might be envisioning the ugly, worn-out, brown chairs from your childhood. But either can be easily updated with new fabric and stuffing to bring them into the modern era. And for the perfect touch of patina, dig deep for chairs made of leather.
"My favorites are from France and made in the 1950s," says Andrea Stanford, senior vice president of brand marketing and partnerships at Everything But The House, an online estate sale marketplace.
"The best club chairs show distress to the leather, but not significant cracking or peeling," she adds.
If you can't get ones with the original leather—or the leather is too much the worse for wear—focus on chairs that have been rebuilt with vintage material, she adds.
3. Silver platters
Silver platters are versatile and give your home a touch of old-world glam. You'll almost always find the real thing at an estate sale or your local flea market, says Julie Muniz, an art curator and consultant in San Francisco.
"The best part is that they're inexpensive at these markets, so you won't mind as much if they get stained or tarnished by moisture or wax," she adds.
Muniz recommends placing candlesticks on them, or putting them under plants. Alternatively, give a large silver platter a good polish and top it with liquor bottles for a DIY tabletop bar.
4. Leather-bound books
Need to fill a new set of bookshelves? Check the attic or garage at an estate sale, says Reyne Hirsh, a former appraiser on "Antiques Roadshow."
"Leather-bound books are usually cheap and in good condition because no one really reads them," she says.
Buy as many as you can, and line them up for a bold statement. "They are the perfect vintage addition to a home office," Hirsh adds.
5. Wrought iron
If anything exudes "expensive" and "timeless," it's wrought iron. But don't be fooled by imitations. As with wooden furniture, the ironwork you're seeking should be solid and heavy, Solomon explains.
"A hand-forged iron fixture, whether it's a chandelier, hinges, or a door knocker, is far superior to the hollow-core reproductions of today," he notes.
And if you hit a trove of metal, be on the lookout for cast-iron machinery as well.
"Iron bases, like the ones found under treadle sewing machines, are perfectly repurposed with a wood, marble, or tile tabletop," says Randeen Cummings, an estate sale appraiser.
6. Vintage accents
In this category you should zero in on tabletop gems, including colored bottles or bottles with unusual shapes, graphic tin cans, antique boxes, or anything gilded, embossed, or engraved, Cummings says.
"Arrange any of these on a mirror, and your room will be beautifully accented," she adds.
Look for candlesticks, too.
"Everyone wants pairs, but buy the singles instead," Hirsh recommends. They're cheaper, and when staggered together on a mantel or dining table, the look can be stunning, she adds.
Lastly, don't forget about picture frames, which are usually piled into boxes or stacked on shelves at an estate sale.
"Scan for Tramp art, anything from the arts and crafts period, or frames that appear to be hand-carved," Solomon says. And don't worry if you're not keen on the picture inside. "It's not unusual for a frame to be older and worth more than the 'art' it holds," he adds.
7. Oriental rugs
A well-made vintage rug is much more interesting than one that's new, Stanford points out.
"Handwoven carpets made from wool and silk hold their value, so look carefully at the craftsmanship—you don't want anything machine-made," she says.
Try to find a rug that's been cared for, which means not too faded or exposed to overzealous vacuuming.
"You want a rug that's worn, but worn evenly," she adds.
Jennifer Kelly Geddes has written for Parents.com, Chewy, Modern Farmer, Celebrations, and Care.com.