The Tarnished Yoke

How did I start doing this kind of work?  Sometimes the way we travel is straight forward, but usually it is circuitous.  I most recently (before being kidnapped into my current profession) worked for ten years as a manager for a major bookstore chain, but prior to that I owned my own bookstore, and prior to that I got my university degree in English with a minor in Writing.  A pretty straightforward path so far (except for my previous years as a psychiatric technician in a state hospital).  So, how did I end up as an estate sale professional?  As I said, the route was circuitous.  My grandmother was born in 1899 of good, thrifty farm stock from Kentucky.  She was neat and orderly, but she saved and used everything possible.  She once gave me the sage advice to never turn down anything someone might offer me, because if I do, they may never offer anything again.  My father was born at the beginning of the Great Depression, so I’m sure he absorbed my grandmother’s thriftiness while still in the womb.  Even my mother learned the hard way that thrift could save one’s life when she and her family fled Oklahoma during the the Dust Bowl Days, only to find work hard to come by in the Great Central Valley of California.  Thrift is in my blood, too.  It’s hard for me to pass up a bargain or to throw useful items out, but I have also learned the dangers of holding on to too much.  My father turned his gift for thrift into an obsession for possessions.  And not always the good kind of possessions.  While my mother lived, she limited my father’s growing masses to his garage, where he kept his old car parts and tools, his dressers and tables, his oxen yoke and his plain old junk.  When she died, the mass grew until it consumed the house.  Every weekend found him scouring garage sales and estate sales looking for treasures.  When we, his children, tried to convince him that his treasures were overwhelming his life and we tried to talk him into letting us help him get rid of some of it, even just a little at a time, he would get angry.  When he died, from the growing mass of cancer that was consuming his body, we mourned and began the task of clearing his house.  He had indeed amassed some treasures, but for every precious thing we found, we uncovered five that were not worth saving.  Some precious things had been destroyed by the weight of worthless things that covered them.  He had saved his treasures as a shield against poverty, or so he said, but in the end his possessions had not added to his life in any good way, and they had limited his life in more ways than just their infringements on his living space.

My father, though, is not the only reason I started doing estate sales.  My daughter is the temptress who led me astray.  Sometimes a gene will loose some of its power with one generation only to spring full force in the next.  My own sweet daughter has the thrift curse.  Fortunately for her, she also inherited my brains and beauty.  At nineteen, she opened her own thrift store.  From that beginning, she started investing in antiques and collectibles, placing them in a succession of stores, until finally she discovered the wonders of estate sales. She was already a knowledgeable professional by the time my father died.  It was she who held the estate sale in my father’s house, she who organized and priced the masses of treasures from his collections.   She had started tempting me slowly, convincing me to come work a day for her here and there.  Soon, I was as addicted as she was.  Then, clever girl, she started asking me to handle more and more of the estate sale business until she had me firmly wearing the yoke.  That’s when she started to pull out.  She opened her first vintage clothing store, then moved to a larger space, then opened a second store.  I was left in the estate sale yoke, thankfully happy with my lot of pulling the business forward.  Kris is still my go-to expert, though now I hope I’ve gained considerable knowledge on my own.  I increased my knowledge by attending the College for Appraisers in Whittier and by reading copiously on the subject, but I know there is still much to be learned.  Always.

Most of us don’t grow up thinking: “Gee, I think I’ll be an estate sale professional!”  I know I didn’t.  However, I find that this business combines many aspects that I find fascinating: people, treasure hunts, peeking into people’s private lives and learning their stories.  It has also taught me many lessons: don’t hold on to things you truly don’t want others to find, organize your stuff so your heirs don’t have to suffer to find your treasures, but don’t throw or give your stuff away just because you think nobody would want it.  They will, or they will sell it for good money.

It’s a good business to be in.  It can be very rewarding, both monetarily and emotionally, but it is also hard work that is often dirty and occasionally unprofitable.  Ignore what you see on TV about this business; most of it is either outright lies or dramatized to make it look more exciting than it really is.  To do this work, in my opinion, you should have a strong sense of honor and professionalism, a stronger stomach, sharp eyes and a good brain.  The ability to empathize goes far, too.  People are an important aspect of this work; if you dislike people in their many forms and moods, you will grow to hate this work.  I’m sure there is more that I’ve forgotten to include.  I welcome comments, but that’s enough from me for today.

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Filed under Personal Findings, September 2011

Is There a Ghost in the House?

Imagine you are in an empty house.  There is another person working in the detached garage, but you are the only one within the home.  As you sift through the accumulations of a lifetime well lived, you hear a thump from the master bedroom.  Something must have fallen over, you think to yourself, and you go on sifting.  Another thump sounds from the bedroom.  This time you decide you’d better check; perhaps a cat got in the house and you wouldn’t want to lock it in by mistake.  You check the room, though, and nothing is there. You check under the bed, in the closet and all around, but nothing reveals itself. The door had been closed, so if it was a cat, it couldn’t have gotten out.  Oh, well.  Back in the living room, you once again settle into your work, taking pictures of interesting items, making notes about what you are finding.    A third thump sounds.  Louder this time.  Your heart begins a rapid beat as you realize that there is nobody else in the house except you, and you know you are not making the thumps.  You also know that the person who had lived in that house until just recently had died a month ago and that is why you were hired to do the estate sale.  The hairs on your arms are now all standing up and you notice an odd tingling down your back as though someone is watching you.  You turn and look behind you.  Nothing is there.  There must be a logical explanation, you think. Maybe someone outside bumped the wall or maybe you’ve gone stark raving mad and are having hallucinations.  That must be it, because you KNOW that there’s no such thing as ghosts.  Still, you feel you’ve been cooped up long enough in the dark, stuffy room, so you hurriedly pack up and get the heck out of there.  Once outside in the bright sunlight, you laugh at how silly you were.  But you never go alone into that house again.

Scenes similar to the above happen to many estate sale professionals, I’ve been told.  Are they sensitive to the spirit world or are they just scaredy cats?  I don’t know.  I wish I did, because the subject fascinates me.  After all, I spend a lot of my time surrounded by houses and things that belonged to a person who has passed on, often just recently.  Do they stay around in spirit, checking up on me as I riffle through their treasures, reading over my shoulder as I thumb through their abandoned diaries and love letters?  Every time I walk into the home of someone who has died, I greet the person by name and explain why I’m there trespassing in their home.  I do it just in case there is someone there, someone no longer in their earthly body.  Nobody has ever answered back to me, and I’m ambivalent about how that makes me feel.  I have never seen nor felt a ghost, nor have I had any paranormal experiences of any sort.  I feel left out, though I probably shouldn’t. According to a CBS Ghost Poll, nearly half of Americans believe in ghosts, but only 22% claim to have actually seen or felt the presence of a ghost.

I guess I’m revealing my own bias when I used the word “claim” when it comes to seeing or sensing ghosts. Having never seen or felt anything like a ghost, I’m skeptical of their claims.  And jealous.  I want to see or sense the presence of a ghost.  I think I want to, at least.  When I’m in one of those houses alone, the last thing I want is to see the image of someone from beyond.  Let me re-phrase that:  I don’t want it to be the LAST thing I see.

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Filed under August 2011

College for Appraisers

If you love vintage or antiques, consider attending the College for Appraisers. I did, and I loved it. The instructors are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. I don’t work as an appraiser (at least not right now), but I learned so much about the kinds of things I find while running my estate sale business, things like glass, furniture, pottery, etc. The college has classes you can attend in Whittier, CA, where the instructor brings in lots of examples of the items being discussed. They also have a home study program for those who live too far to attend the classes. The Glass Class is starting soon, so check it out. Visit their website at http://www.cfacollege.org for more information. And no, this is NOT a paid advertisement. I just like to support an organization as good as this one.

Here’s what they say about themselves:

The College for Appraisers Certificate Programs are for everyone from professional appraisers, dealers and collectors to the incurably curious. Our career programs lead to AAS degrees for those seeking careers as professional appraisers and for those who seek to become more successful dealers, estate sellers, auctioneers, dealers and collectors. Our courses provide the specialized knowledge and hands-on practical experience you need to make that great leap from simply looking to truly knowing what you are seeing.

UPCOMING SEMINAR College For Appraisers! AUGUST 20, 2011 / Glass 1-day seminar…

Includes an overview of glass and cut glass history as well as specific ways to observe differences between pressed and cut glass – both old and new.

Date: SAT August 20, 2011 – Instructor: Tom Ahern

Make sure you don’t miss this wonderful seminar! Happy Friday!

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Filed under August 2011

14 Reasons to Hire an Estate Sale Professional Instead of DIY

You have a houseful of stuff that you need to get rid of soon, so what should you do?  I know you’ve watched Antique Roadshow and maybe American Pickers or Pawn Stars.  Perhaps you’ve even watched estate sale shows such as Cash & Cari or Big Brian.  So now you think you know enough to hold your own estate sale. After all, how hard could it be.  Right?  You put stuff on a table, put a price on it and then you make lots of money.   I have some advice for you:  DON’T DO IT!  I’m sorry.  That was rude of me.  Let me rephrase that:  PLEASE don’t do it!  In my opinion you would be making a mistake and here are some reasons why:

1. Do you know what this is?

You get a point if you guessed that it is a basket.  You get a hundred points if you know who makes it and how much it can sell for.  Your house may have plenty of  items that look ordinary, and may BE ordinary, but there are a few common things that can bring uncommon amounts of money.  No, this basket won’t make you rich, but wouldn’t you hate to sell it for a dollar and THEN find out it’s worth $50?  I know I would.  Keep in mind, that is not the price you will likely get for the basket even with an estate sale professional, but you will likely get more than a dollar, and you won’t feel like an idiot.  (look up Longaberger. Or better yet, read this article on ehow.com where I borrowed the above photo.) There are so many items like this that you will never know them all, and none of them are featured on Antique Roadshow.  A professional has usually seen enough to know the values of at least a few of these, and what they don’t know they either learn by researching or by asking one of their many experts.  Now, for two hundred points, tell me how many of these you know and what is their value?:

2. Are you physically strong enough to handle heavy lifting in difficult conditions?  Yeah, yeah.  I know, you go to the gym eight times a week and you can bench press 300 pounds, but that gym is clean and air conditioned.  And those weights fit neatly on the ends of shiny bars.  What if that weight takes the form of fifty boxes of clothes sitting in an  open shed for forty years so that they are now full of rat droppings and spiders?  Sound good?  Still want to handle that?  A professional does it all the time without (much) complaint.  Okay, they’ll complain about the droppings, but who wouldn’t?  They’ll still do it so you don’t have to.

3.  Do you have a heart of stone and bad hearing? It is physically stressful to hold an estate sale yourself.  The set-up, the pricing, the staffing are all difficult, even for a professional.  When you add in the fact that what you are selling may have an emotional impact on you, the stress is tripled. Do you really want to see strangers pawing through your mother’s underwear drawers or your grandfather’s beloved pipes?  Can you handle the kinds of comments that you are likely to hear as those strangers walk through your family home saying things like: “How could they live like this?” or “Who would have such bad taste as to have [insert a past decorative style or kitschy collectible or those clothes your uncle wore while golfing] in their house?”  I’ve heard comments like those, but they don’t bother me (much) because it isn’t MY bad taste or cobwebs they are commenting on.  People aren’t usually cruel on purpose, but they can be oblivious at times.  Stupid at other times.  It’s hard to ignore them, though, when it’s personal.

4. Do you know the difference between My Favorite Aunt’s Precious Vase and a pretty glass vase of no great value? Many people are too emotionally invested in their Mother’s Treasures, or the reminders of a marriage torn asunder, to be able to separate the perceived value of an item from its actual value.  I know that your grandmother kept her family silver and never used it because it was way too special and valuable, but it’s possible that “silver” is really silverplate and not worth nearly what you think.  Also, despite what you see on Antique Roadshow, etc, not everything in your house is worth a fortune.  Not even the antiques, which are often not as antique-ish as you think.  It takes a lot of emotional distance and a good eye to price things appropriately sometimes, and that is another time when a professional comes in handy.  We see the items, not our love of it or the memories attached to it.  Also, what you paid retail for something is not a good indication of how much it will sell for at an estate sale.  Public tastes and  interests change over time.  Few people want to buy those collector plates or your Beanie Baby collection now.  Maybe they will come back into favor, maybe not, but don’t expect to get top dollars for them.  Also, technology is changing so rapidly that the computer you paid several thousand dollars for just a few years ago, probably is only good as a door stop now.  Let it go.

5.  Do you feel comfortable selling junk?  I mean, real junk.  Lots of people who have estate sales think they should clear out the “junk” so that only the “important” things are left.  Like the antiques and the silver.  What many don’t realize is that the people who frequent estate sales often want the other stuff.  Like the half-used cleanser from under your sink or the rusty old door hinges in the coffee can in the garage or the collection of unpaired earrings that have been awaiting the reappearance of their mates since you lost them twenty years ago.  Can you resist the urge to clean up so that those strangers won’t realize what a mess your cellar or garage or drawers are?  Once again, a professional thrives on selling obscure or surprise items.  But surely nobody wants these old Christmas cards, you say?  And this old set of bowls?  And this leftover shampoo?  Yes!  They want them!

6.  Do you have eyes in the back of your head?  No?  Well, I don’t either.  But a professional usually  has years of experience with people who would gladly pay them nothing for this gold watch today.  We know a lot of the tricks that people can pull in their attempts to help themselves to the items we’re selling.  And trust me, there are a lot of tricks.  I feel people are basically good and honest, but they often seem to forget those qualities at estate sales.  Many will try to steal from you!  Don’t let them.  Hire a professional with a good team.  No, I will not reveal some of the tricks we’ve learned to watch for.  No sense giving anyone ideas.

7.  Can you deal with people who like to haggle?  By haggling, I mean they want to pay you twenty-five cents for the lovely vase you priced at $10.  “But it’s got a chip and the color is ugly and I don’t really even want it, but sell it to me for a quarter,” they may say to you.  Or “I only want a couple pictures out of this book, so can you sell it to me for ten cents instead of five dollars?  I’m just going to cut it up.”  Or maybe they’ll just bring the item marked $20 and they’ll lift their eyebrows as they say: “How about a dollar?”  Once or twice, or even five times, most people can handle this kind of haggling, but it takes a fair degree of fortitude to handle it for six hours a day for two or three days straight.  A professional should be able to take it without breaking down and crying.  Can you?

8.  Can you attract a crowd?  You shouldn’t have to learn magic tricks or send your nephew out to the street to dance with a giant arrow.  I’m sure you know how to place an ad in the paper, but do you have an extensive list of people just waiting to go to your sale?  My guess is not.  You might have some relatives and some neighbors and friends, but they will usually either come to be supportive or come to be snoops.  They may buy a geegaw or such to be polite, but they are not the true, hardcore estate sale shoppers that every good sale needs in abundance in order to be successful.  A professional has connections and knows ways of getting the word out to the right customers who want what you have to offer.  Professionals have real signs, too, but not those clever marking pen signs you’ve made on the side of a box.

9. Do you really not have something better to do?  Estate sales are long, hard work interspersed with stretches of tedium. You don’t need that.  Go on a trip to the beach instead.  Let the professional slave away in the heat and dust.  They love it.

I know that was only nine reasons, but they are all so good that they feel like fourteen. Hire a professional for your sale and you’re likely to be extremely glad you did.

And now that you’ve decided to hire an estate sale company, how do you make sure that you’re hiring a good one?  Read Choosing an Estate Sale Company You Can Trust.

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Running thief image borrowed from http://www.marvinleblanc.com/blog

Haggling image from englishfromfriends.com/blog, who got it from http://girliegirlarmy.com/)

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Filed under August 2011

Here We Go…

I’m a full-time, bona fide treasure hunter who searches through ordinary homes for extraordinary finds. I’m a estate liquidator by trade, which gives me unparalleled access to the private recesses of a great many dwellings. I go places that most people (especially the voyeuristic) only dream of going. And some of the places many only have nightmares about. I see the messes, the sacred, the heartbreaking, the absurd, and the mundane. I uncover the secrets and the secreted, the forgotten and the unknown, the useless and the valuable. Some finds anyone can locate. Other finds may take a trained eye to discover, maybe because the items are covered by years of dust and grime, maybe just because one man’s trash is another’s treasure. I find all of it, all those things you purposely left for your family, but also those things you never planned for others to find. Once you are gone, it all comes out in the open.

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Filed under June 2011