Janice Gordon's dining room
Janice Gordon's dining room Credit: Andrea Bauer

Most of the artwork in Janice Gordon’s Lincoln Park town house came from thrift stores, garage sales, and flea markets. But these aren’t your typical second-hand scores—she’s paid pocket change for fine-art treasures that normally fetch thousands at galleries and auctions.

“You can have really nice, expensive artwork and pay thrift-store prices,” she says, but “you have to enjoy looking.” Retired from a career in marketing, the 63-year-old now sells jewelry on eBay. She used to go to thrift stores every day, initially collecting a wide array of vintage items, like old hats and Lucite purses. “I’m looking for a good deal, and it doesn’t matter what it is,” she says. “I’ll buy it and figure out what to do with it.”

Gordon purchased three original watercolors by the late Chicago artist James Sessions for $225 at a house sale. “When I looked up Sessions auctions, they sell for $2,000 to $4,000 each,” she says. Above her bed hang two lithographs by French artist Brigitte Coudrain—each worth about $200, they were dollar finds at a neighborhood sale. A 1957 unsigned print called The Village by Marc Chagall—a $3 purchase at a church sale—hangs in her bathroom. In another bathroom, two lithographs by James Hagen are on display. “Each one of those is worth $750,” Gordon says; she paid a mere $15 at a Ravenswood garage sale. “My husband and I joke that we have expensive artwork in the bathroom.”

Once Gordon acquires a work she believes is significant, confirming its provenance is no small task. As a member of the Art Institute of Chicago, she often digs through the institution’s files. “I carry a loupe all the time in my purse,” she says. When her research comes up short, she’ll tap an art dealer to inspect her finds.

Giving thrift-store rescues a second life stokes Gordon. “Younger [people] now are not that into antiques; they see this stuff when a parent dies and they give it to thrift stores,” she says. “I’m saving old things from being destroyed.”

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