4 Under-the-Radar Tips for Finding Amazing Art at the Thrift Store, According to Design Experts

updated Dec 12, 2023
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These days, decorating your home with art is easier than ever. Perform a quick Google search, and you have thousands of artists at your fingertips — and that’s not even taking into account the online print marketplaces and more affordable art buying sites that have sprouted up in recent years.

While there’s certainly a time and place for buying art prints online, there’s something to be said for sourcing truly unique, original pieces for your home as well. These works come with a story, some added character, and usually a higher price tag, too. That being said, decorating your home with quality, one-of-a-kind art doesn’t have to be expensive and unattainable. 

Credit: Jarret Yoshida

Thrift stores can be amazing spots to find unique art at an affordable price point, and the selection is seemingly endless. However, if you aren’t an experienced thrifter, then the whole process can feel kind of daunting.

How can you separate the treasure from the “trash?” What are some things to look out for? I spoke to a few experienced thrifters to ask them for their best tips for finding amazing, quality art for a song, and here’s what they had to say.

Credit: Treena Bowker

1. Shop often and be persistent

All of the experts I polled agreed that you have to browse often to find a gem. Thrift stores’ inventories are constantly in flux, so it’s a good idea to swing by every few days or so to score something truly great.

“Go through every single piece of art in the thrift store,” says Jarret Yoshida, principal designer at the Brooklyn-based interior design firm Jarret Yoshida Interior Design. “The good stuff at the top has likely already been taken. So go to the bottom of the bin, baby! Look to see what is up on the ceiling. That dusty pile? Go check it out!” 

Chat up associates at your local spots to see what days donations end up on the sales floors. Also, don’t limit your search to just one store. Check out as many thrift shops, antique malls, flea markets, and estate sales as you can, and be prepared to leave empty-handed more often than not. “Great finds don’t happen often, and if they did, would they be great?” says Yoshida. “So persistence, persistence — one more time for the back of the room — persistence is key.” 

Credit: Treena Bowker

2. Come prepared

Like anything, getting good at thrifting amazing art takes time, practice, and preparation. Do some research, whether online or in person, into the type of art that resonates with you to familiarize yourself with what quality pieces look like. “It’s like dating,” says Yoshida. “The first few times are rough, but as your eye develops, you’ll more easily filter through what works and won’t.”

He likes to visit museums and take docent tours to help develop his “eye for art” as well as visit galleries and MFA shows to learn about what’s more cutting edge in the industry. Online scouting, whether through Pinterest or a on website like art.com, can also help you hone in on the aesthetic you’re drawn to. That way, when you’re out on a thrifting trip, you can quickly identify pieces or tropes — landscapes, portraiture, etc. — that may interest you, says Elizabeth Pozniak, owner of Dottie P Vintage.

Certain characteristics can also help you identify a quality secondhand work of art. For example, oil paintings can often be identified by their texture and visible brush strokes, while a genuine etching strike creates a visible indentation around the image, says Emma Lewis, art historian and owner of The Twentieth Decorative Arts.

Look for signatures on pieces, which can mean a work of art is either original or part of a limited series. A signature can also give you a sense of a piece’s potential worth or provide you a breadcrumb for finding out more information about the artist.

3. Don’t forget the book section

If you’ve exhausted your search of the art section, go check out the book department. Books provide instant art and tend to be inexpensive at thrift stores. For that reason, they’re a great resource for illustrations and photographs that can be cut out, framed, and hung.

“I collect antique textbooks because they’re often heavily used and have outdated information, so they are discarded,” says Lewis. “But the art on the inside is usually fine-art quality if it is [from] before the 1930s, meaning it was made with chromolithography or off-set lithography etchings.” Treena Bowker, expert thrifter and owner of vintage purveyor House of Joie, agrees. “Cutting out photos from a book and popping them into a detailed frame will give your walls an elevated look,” she says.

Credit: Jarret Yoshida

4. Think outside the box

When it comes to art, don’t be afraid to repurpose items and think creatively about sourcing pieces. Art is more than just paintings and photographs hung on a wall or work done by traditional fine artists, so expand your definition of “art” to textiles, maps, and more.

“Whether it be a mini Turkish rug hung from a vintage wood hanger, an old postcard your grandma has held onto, a detailed woven basket, or even props such as the brass propeller featured in my bathroom, I believe art comes in all shapes and sizes,” says Bowker. 

Yoshida echoes that sentiment. “I frame and install antique postcards of Greek ruins, vintage photographs showing unknown landscapes, textiles, and rugs by unknown artists next to photographs held in MoMa’s collections,” he says.

He also recommends expanding your search beyond the traditional Western canon of art by keeping an eye on pieces with cultural influences from around the world. “I found a gorgeous seven-panel Japanese screen [while] thrifting that others overlooked because it wasn’t Western,” he says. “Bonus? I got it appraised and found out it is worth twenty times what I bought it for.”