A College Student Bought a $10 Ashtray at a Goodwill. Turns Out It’s a Yoshitomo Nara—and He Flipped It for a 30,000 Percent Profit

Terrelle Brown, a 22-year-old student at Wheaton College, hit the jackpot.

Yoshitomo Nara, Frog Girl (1998). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Yoshitomo Nara, the Japanese artist whose market rise has sent shockwaves through the art market in the past several years, has become equally sought-after by a whole different type of art buyer: vintage shoppers on TikTok.

In the art world, the 62-year-old Japanese artist may be best known for his meteoric market rise. His impish subjects have been shown at blue-chip spaces like Pace, Blum and Poe, and Marianne Boesky. In 2019, his Knife Behind Back (2000) set an auction record for his work at Sotheby’s Hong Kong when it brought in a whopping 195.7 HKD, or about $25 million.

Owning a Nara work, in other words, is like hitting the jackpot, which is exactly how Terrelle Brown, a 22-year-old student at Wheaton College in Illinois, felt when he spotted something special at his local Goodwill.

“I was just out hitting the thrifts looking for stuff to add to my rotation,” he told Artnet News over the phone. As an avid vintage buyer who recently opened his own shop via TikTok, Brown is mostly into clothing.

But in a glass cabinet behind lock and key at Goodwill, he spied a familiar figure of an indignant looking girl puffing a cigarette on an ashtray.

Turns out, this was an original Nara piece and titled Too Young To Die from 2002.

Brown snagged it for a cool ten bucks. 

@tdotbdot Feel like I’ll regret this one in a few years. #vintagevibes #paradigmthrift #fashiontiktok #HPSustainableSounds #yoshitomonara ♬ My money dont jiggle jiggle – Duke & Jones

“I was shaking with excitement because I knew the potential of it. I hopped in the car and started looking at Ebay prices, and I was like, ‘This is unreal’.”

“It’s like it’s an industry plant,” Brown adding, joking that it was almost like a guerrilla marketing scheme cooked up by Nara’s studio.

After authenticating the piece by matching it with other ashtrays made by Nara at the time (a process made simple by the fact that the ashtray was in its original packaging, allowing Brown to match it to other ashtrays that had been sold online), Brown wound up cashing in at an almost 30,000 percent gain (yes, 30,000), selling the ashtray for $2,860 on eBay.

This isn’t a one-off success story, either.

Brown said several people on TikTok across the country found the exact same ashtray he did. Some, like one thrifter in Los Angeles and another TikTok account holder in Phoenix, opted to hold on to their pieces instead of selling. (Perhaps that’s for the best, as the same ashtrays are currently listed online for as cheap at $113.61.)

While Nara’s presence on the fine art stage may make thrift store flips like Brown’s look like chump change, one thing is certain: the Nara market is hot, and not one to be underestimated.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.