Ethically, if you find something of great value at a garage sale, should you inform the seller or quietly pay and take the item?

(This may be better for GD…not sure…mods feel free to move.)

Imagine you are at a garage sale and you see something that you KNOW is worth a great deal of money. Not a few hundred dollars but more like millions of dollars.

Clearly the seller has no clue and is selling it for a few dollars.

Is it ethical to pay the few dollars and take the valuable item? Or should you tell the person that the item really has some substantial value?

I am sure most here have seen the TV show “Antiques Roadshow” where the occasional person shows up with some treasure that they thought was near garbage but turned out to be really valuable. This is not beyond reason to happen.

What I would do is buy it cheap, sell it for millions, but then track down the owner (having gotten his/her contact info first) and share some of the wealth with him/her.

Ethically, I think there is some obligation to inform the owner, but if you do before the transaction is finalized, he might not sell to you - so…it’s tricky. Better done by rewarding him afterwards than notifying in advance. You could even pretend, “Hey, guess what? I did some research, and this (thing) turned out to be worth a lot more than you thought!”

Or - you could just pay a more handsome price upfront, and insist on doing so. A good example of this (fictional, but still good,) is the story of Sherlock Holmes and the broken Napoleon statues. Holmes found the owner of the last Napoleon statue, paid him ten pounds (which was way more than the statue seemed worth, and the owner protested as such, but Holmes insisted) - and then after the owner was gone, then smashed the plaster bust to reveal a large priceless black pearl within (hidden there previously by someone).

Does it matter who the person is?

Say, in one example, it is a widow selling her husband’s collection of widgets and she has no clue the widgets have real value. Maybe he hid the cost of his collection from her or she just never cared enough to know so she sells the widgets thinking they are mostly junk.

As opposed to, say, a pawn shop.

Just two examples…I am sure we can come up with a lot of gray areas.

If it’s a pawn shop I wouldn’t really feel much if any obligation. They’re a business, not a person, and I don’t know if I even could comp them after the fact - that would look weird on their accounting. (“Customer X insisted we under-charged him and wanted to give us an extra ten thousand”)

If a widow, though, then yeah, I’d definitely make sure she got a fair chunk of the money.

Yup, it’s a gray-area spectrum.

Aging widow selling deceased husband’s collection to raise cash? Of course I tell her about the underestimated value.

A business? Nope, they’re supposed to be savvy about what they sell – my gain their loss.

Everything in between? Depends on the circumstance I guess.

My wife’s grandma gave away a lot of old stuff when she sold her house and moved to a nursing home. I got a box of sports memoribilia since I was the only guy helping move. After I got home I realized there were some old baseball cards (Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Musial, etc.) and some were even rookie cards. I had them valued by a collector and returned them to her caregiver daughter. No way I was keeping these since no one in the chain of custody had any inkling of their value. A few of my wife’s sisters would have sold them in a heartbeat, but we don’t operate that way.

Devil’s Advocate:

Does it matter how much that value has been underestimated?

Telling grandma the thing she is selling for $5 is worth $50 is one thing.

Will you tell her if the thing this she is selling for $5 is worth:




Is there no point where you snag the item for yourself?

There is nothing wrong with paying a person what they ask for an item.

Let us recall the scenario:

  • Aging widow
  • selling husband’s collection
  • at a garage sale
  • to raise money

I would be tempted to snag a very valuable item for myself, but it would feel like stealing from a desperate old lady, even if it isn’t actually.

I very much like @Velocity 's idea of buying the very valuable thing ($5k+) and splitting the proceeds. At that point, you are legitimately providing a service to the seller, suspecting, verifying and collecting the high value that was otherwise unrecognized. For lower value items, I’m not personally going to buy and sell, but I would let the owner know of the underpriced item. For still lower value ($50) I might just buy it for myself if it’s something I want, I expect to pay 20 cents on the dollar at a garage sale, it’s why I’m at a garage sale.

I don’t go to garage sales, but it is my understanding that there is a subset of garage sale enthusiasts that this scenario is their stated goal. Whether they do it as a hobby or even a business. Whereas other people are just looking for cool old stuff/cheap stuff.

A million dollar item on sale for 5 dollars might be the Holy Grail for these people, and rarely, if ever happen. But the shoebox full of old baseball cards, for sale for 25 cents for the whole box, that has a signed rookie card of Mickey Mantle is exactly what the are looking for. The coffee table that is a collectors item, a signed first edition book, etc. That’s why they get there first thing in the morning.

Personally, if it was a poor little old lady, my better nature might get the best of me and I would let her know the items worth. i think it somewhat analogous to a little old lady giving you some “losing” lottery scratchers to enter a second chance drawing that some states have, because she doesn’t have the time or patience to get on the computer. Then you notice one of the “losers” is a million dollar winner. (my spouse always double checks her scratchers at the machine, some of them are kinda complicated on what exactly is a winner)

The usual scenario behind a garage sale is that someone has a bunch of extra clutter, and their primary goal is just to get rid of it. Any money they get in the process is a bonus, but they don’t realistically expect to get enough to cover the hassle of conducting the sale. They could do research on every item, and increase the amount of money they get from the sale, but at the cost of even more hassle, and usually the extra money won’t be worth the extra hassle.

Yes, this means that garage-sale items are usually underpriced. That’s why passers-by are buying them, after all. And occasionally, it means that an item is underpriced by a significant amount: That’s the risk the seller takes by holding a garage sale.

It almost never happens that an item is literally underpriced by millions of dollars, though. And even in the extremely rare case that it does happen, will you actually know it? Something undervalued by that much would pretty much have to be some sort of collectible, and it’s only going to be worth that much if it’s in absolutely immaculate condition. Do you have the time, skills, and resources to make that thorough of an inspection of it, while standing by the curb? And without all of the chain-of-custody documentation proving it is what it looks like, could you ever get that kind of price for it?

Try a web search “Painting found at garage sale” or “Painting found at Goodwill”.

When someone brings up the “poor little old lady” trope, I’m reminded of a landlady I rented from when I was a poor twenty-something year old.

After we had vacated the premises, leaving it cleaner and in far better repair than when we’d moved in a year prior, we really needed our security deposit. I called to remind her. On my answering machine that evening I found a message telling me to take her to court, fuck you, now stop bothering me.

She was a sweet little old white haired widow. The fact someone lives to old age doesn’t mean they’re good people.

Had a similar situation happen with my son, though not nearly as extreme as the OP’s example of an item being worth millions.

My wife likes to visit garage sales, sometimes I go with her and sometimes our older son comes too. At one garage sale my son found a small Mario-branded game— not a video game or even electronic, it was mechanical- like a small hand-held pinball game or something. A lady was selling it for 50 cents and my son immediately recognized it as being a collector’s item in the gaming world.

Sure enough, we found people trying to sell it for up to $120 on eBay (though it didn’t seem to be selling at that price). He eventually took it to a store that dealt in new and used gaming stuff and got $30 for it.

Anyway, as a father who’s tried to teach his kids good ethical values, I wondered afterward if I should have encouraged him to tell the lady the true worth, or to offer more than the 50 cents.

As my friend and teacher explained to me: if a buyer found something worth a million dollars, then the world was a better, happier, place, than if she had thrown in out in the rubbish.

Like many people have said, it would depend on the situation. I used to collect movie posters. I saw a newspaper ad from a guy selling posters from the 1970s for $3 each. I went to his house, looked at what he had, and realized that many of them could sell for $100 apiece or more at auction. I’m an ethical person and felt obligated to tell him that. I said “Are you sure you want to sell these for $3 each?” He said “I just want to get rid of them. Anything I don’t sell I’m going to take out back and burn.” Well, at that point, any misgivings fell away. I’d budgeted myself to spend only a certain amount, and I exceeded that, but I picked out the best of the best and we both were happy. I still have those posters and their value has only increased over time. Since he was so nonchalant about it and I had been upfront with him about what he was practically giving away, I felt I had treated him fairly.

I don’t know. When you start talking in the millions of dollars, even seemingly nice people can get nasty. Buy an antique teacup for $5 that’s worth $500? Sure, I’ll go back to Widow Jones and give her half. But if it turns out that teacup was actually the Holy Grail and worth a fortune, Widow Jones and her heirs may not view my offer of half the proceeds as generous – they’re as likely to view it as being robbed out of half of “their” windfall. And then it’s lawyer time.

Rando garage sale? My lucky day!

Fundraising effort for a cause? Round up to the nearest dollar or more and it’s still my lucky day!

Story told me by an antiques dealer:

He sold an old table for $500. While the buyer was off arranging for transportation, another man came by and offered him $1000 for the table, then $2000. The dealer explained that he had already sold the table, and no amount of money was going to make him change that, but would he please explain what it was and how much it was really worth. Turns out it was a rare table from the Ottoman Empire, not many examples were known, and it was worth at least $100000.

Note the relevant information was not spontaneously proffered before the attempted negotiation.

TWo things come to mind when considering this for me:

1.The rule of reciprocity would suggest that I reverse the roles, and consider what I would want someone to do if they bought the item off of me. Or I could even make it entirely impersonal, and look at what seems fair with two other people. Both lead me to thinking that splitting it half-and-half would be fair

2. But then’s there’s a different consideration: if I told them before buying it, would they agree to split it with me in the same way? Probably not. Sure, under capitalism you can buy something for what someone will sell it for, but it’s not like that’s always ethical. If you tricked someone into thinking something was worth little money, that would be unethical. If they tricked you into paying more than something was worth, that would be unethical.
And there’s an argument that they are not giving their informed consent to selling the item.

Ultimately, I think that I would do number 1, but the reason would be selfish, and not moral. I would want the money, and then I would want assuage my guilt by splitting it with them after the fact.

That is, leaving out the issues of them trying to sue me to get it back or something. I’m assuming here that the price is high enough that they’d rather get half than risk not only getting none but being out the legal fees. I’m also assuming they’re not a horrible person, and that they’re of about equal in wealth as me.

I stopped at a garage sale at the end of the day. A woman was selling her deceased husband’s tools and such. She pointed out a big box taped shut, labeled “pornography, $500”. She was upset it hadn’t sold.

She told me it was worth more than $500, but nobody had even made an offer. Part of the problem was she did not want to open the box. I offered her $20 and she took it.

Looking through the box with my gf, it was apparent why the woman didn’t want to open the box. Hundreds of DVDs with some very specific fetishes.

That winter I put the DVDs in a sack, put on my Santa suit, and gave out movies to naughty boys and girls (over 18) at SantaCon. It was a hoot.