Experience: I found Picasso plates worth $34,000 in a thrift shop

<span>‘I feel financially secure for the first time in my life’<strong>: </strong>Nancy Cavaliere at home in New York.</span><span>Photograph: Ben Zucker/The Guardian</span>
‘I feel financially secure for the first time in my life’: Nancy Cavaliere at home in New York.Photograph: Ben Zucker/The Guardian

When I grew up in Italy, secondhand shopping was far from cool. We immigrated to New York in 1984, when I was seven. As a family, we didn’t have much money and would make the most of the secondhand stores. A lot of people think these shops are dirty, smelly and full of junk people don’t want – but to me they are treasure troves.

In 2014 I got married, and my partner and I were trying to furnish our first rented apartment. I had worked three jobs to put myself through college, and money had always been a strain. I found homeware shops so stressful, I even cried in one: everything was so expensive and it felt impossible to buy anything. I ended up going to secondhand stores and was shocked at what people had given away. I found $3,000 sofas being sold for $100, midcentury candlesticks and retro dining tables with chairs from the 80s.

I caught the bug. I set up a blog to document my vintage finds and help others find great things, too. Among my discoveries are a rare Alexander McQueen jumpsuit from the 90s, Gucci pieces from the 70s and Oscar de la Renta couture dresses. It’s a creative outlet for me. I work in HR, which can be serious and corporate. I like to express myself through my jewellery, clothing and homeware instead. On my lunch breaks I often get lost in secondhand stores, treasure hunting.

I got in touch with an auction house, and sent them pictures. They confirmed the plates were authentic

August 2018 had been a particularly unlucky month. I hadn’t found anything special in weeks, but decided to give it one last go. In a large thrift shop in Queens, I strolled through aisles lined with hundreds of jackets, jumpers and jeans, but nothing stood out. I went down the homeware aisle on my way out and was looking through the china when a plate caught my eye.

A painted face was looking up at me. There were white lines on a black background, with splashes of turquoise. It was part of a set. I started imagining all the fun tablescapes I could create for dinner parties. The plates were in perfect condition. I turned one over to see a sticker pricing it at $1.99. Then I saw an indent in the ceramic that said “Picasso”.

My stomach lurched. Surely not. I texted a friend who works in antiques, asking if she thought it was real. She replied straight away, saying that it probably wasn’t, but they were cool and I should buy them anyway. I still wondered if they were real, though, and trembled as I took them to the till, buzzing with adrenaline. I then walked back to my office, cradling the plates in my arms.

I got in touch with an auction house that sells Picasso ceramics, and sent them videos and pictures. They confirmed the plates were authentic and asked if I needed help auctioning them off. I went through every single emotion I think it’s possible to feel, and it’s still hard to put it into words now. I couldn’t believe it.

I dropped the plates off to the auction house for safekeeping. They valued them at $5,000 each, but I had to wait four months for the auction as they are held only twice a year.

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In December 2022, I was at my desk in my office, watching the live auction on my computer. I was sweating and my phone was buzzing with notifications from my family as they waited in anticipation, too. The plates were sold individually. Bidding for the first plate started at $5,000. The auctioneer banged his hammer when it was sold for a final $8,000, and I burst into tears. The second plate went for $10,000 – I could hardly speak by this point. When the last plate went for $16,000, I almost collapsed. I rang my family and sobbed down the phone. My $1.99 plates had just sold for $34,000. It didn’t feel real.

I invested the money in the stock market straight away. I didn’t trust myself not to get overexcited and go on a shopping spree. I feel financially secure for the first time in my life.

I still go to secondhand shops, and I’m currently hoping to find a Renaissance painting. People might say that is unachievable, but I’ve proved otherwise. With secondhand shopping, you have to be in it to win it – and on that day I won gold.

• As told to Elizabeth McCafferty

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