Treasure Hunter

How to Find Garage Sale Treasures

Garage sale guru Karin Gustafson shares her top tips.

By Ilene Denton July 1, 2019 Published in the July 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

A recent once-in-a-lifetime yard sale find has local treasure hunters on their own prowls. A consigner at The Exchange (formerly the Woman’s Exchange) paid $1 last winter for a 1927 ceramic glazed bowl by the Italian modernist designer Gio Ponti whose twin bowl had sold for $30,000 at Christie’s auction house. “He bought it for a dollar because it had the word, ‘Italy,’ on the bottom, and he figured it had to be worth something,” says The Exchange executive director Karen Koblenz.

“Those are the kinds of things that keep us going,” says garage sale guru Karin Gustafson. Since founding Karin’s Causes in 2014, the retired Y Foundation president has raised more than $103,000 for area nonprofits by snapping up yard sale bargains year-round and reselling them at her own annual sales. (This year’s event raised $13,500 for the Women’s Resource Center, Animal Rescue Coalition and New College Foundation.)

Employing her lifelong passion for “the treasure hunt,” Gustafson completely furnished two investment condos in Placida in garage sale finds and promptly sold both condos turnkey. “Except for the sofas and bedding; those are the only things I never buy at garage sales,” she says.

Gustafson has her own once-in-a-lifetime tale. Her late friend, an appraiser, was finishing up appraising furnishings at the home of a widow who’d lived with her husband in post-World War II Japan when the woman said she’d forgotten something in the hall closet. It turned out to be a presentation piece from the Emperor to her husband that had disappeared from the Japanese archives. “The world was looking for this piece,” she says. “My friend put it online and instantly sold it to someone in England for several hundred thousand dollars.”

Gustafson’s own personal best is paying $15 for a painting by the late Sarasota artist Helen Sawyer, whose work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum and Library of Congress. “I thought I was going to die,” she says. She resold it for a couple hundred dollars at a Karin’s Cause sale.

“Hope springs eternal,” she says.

Ready, set…

Karin’s tips for getting the most out of yard sales.

Go early if you want to find the best.

“You don’t want to be impolite; don’t go knocking on their door at 6 a.m. But 15 minutes early is not too bad.”

Know your stuff.

“If you don’t know everything about everything, become an expert in something. I choose art and artists.”

And know what you’re looking for.

“Friends sometimes ask me for something specific—acrylic lamps or Le Creuset cookware. Because I’m tuned into these things, I often find them.”

Be open-minded.

“Generally, it makes sense to go to sales in well-off neighborhoods. But once I followed a little sign into this modest neighborhood where the sellers had a box of silver plate. I went through it and found four birth and death spoons from 1701 to 1703.” 

If you are the garage sale organizer, be neat, clean and organized, with good signage.

“And just because you looked it up and you priced the item according to eBay, remember that’s what they’re asking.  Go back and see what it brought.”

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