Thursday, September 20, 2012



The rooms at my Mom's house now have an echo, that reverberating sound your voice makes when there's nothing there to absorb the waves of your words as they bounce back off the walls in rapid repetition.  It's now a couple of days after the end of my Mother's estate sale and I'm able to take stock of how productive the whole experience was. As overwhelming as the task looked from the beginning, in retrospect we made it through with few regrets.
Here's how we did it and what we learned:
1. There's so much one collects that ends up with only sentimental value and has no place in an estate sale. We found volumes of scrapbooks my Mom had put together: some with greeting cards from Birthdays and Holidays, some with letters written and received and others with receipts for purchases that ranged from televisions to gallons of milk. Then there were her diaries, notes written about the day's weather, a trip to the Dells or the day I told her I was gay. There wasn't any monetary value here, only the kind of things that tugged at your heart. Things you couldn't sell or throw away. We decided to make one of us the family historian. My sister, Ebby, the teacher would be the one to store my Mom's memories for a woman who could no longer remember them.
2. Turn everything upside down and look behind every drawer. At some point my Mom had gone through and written on the bottoms of drawers or attached a note to the back of a piece of furniture, "This belongs to Bonnie". It made it very easy when it came to picking out pieces each of us wanted to keep as an heirloom that we could hand down to another generation, things like our great-grandmother's wedding dress we found at the bottom of an old cedar chest or a cloisonné bracelet in her jewelry box that I had made for her when I was in grade school.
3. The internet is your friend. It took hours but it paid off both in helping us price things we knew very little about and educating us on the history of household objects. We had no idea that her cut glass stemware was Waterford and rather than the five dollars per glass we were about to price them at, their market value was eighty dollars per glass. Our price went from five to fifty, still a deal.
4. The internet is not your friend. Looking at book values is great but there are some things that are never going to sell at their listed value unless you can find that one-in-a-million buyer who can appreciate the worth of a trove of Fiestaware. A rare turquoise mint condition creamer and sugar bowl on its accompanying tray valued at $600 is still not going to sell for $350 unless you get really lucky. You have four choices: hope that one-in-a-million buyer comes in hungry for the set, put it up on an online selling site and hope for that buyer to find it, reduce the price and take the lose, or keep it for yourself.
5. Before you start your sale talk to local antique vendors to find out what sources they use to source sales. There are online sites that run about $50 to advertise on. They are relatively new but the cost is reasonable and worth the price. You can list the site's URL on all your other ads. The advantage here is you are allowed to post a bunch of pictures and they usually provide a link to a map site so people can download directions to your sale. Local newspapers are necessary but they charge enormous fees for estate sale ads as opposed to garage sale ads. Shorten your ad to as few words as possible and make sure you give the link to your online ad. Talk to the classified sales person for information about their highest circulation days. They are usually very helpful in telling you what will work best in your area. Make flyers and put them in local antique malls. Because some malls look at this as competition for their vendors ask if they have a vendor lounge. For an estate sale it's the vendors you most want to entice to come anyway. We found out, almost too late, that most dealers in our area use Craigslist as their main source for scouting out sales. Don't forget to place an ad with Craig, it's free.
6. Make some rules about the sale and then stick to them. We did a three-day sale. We had a sign-up sheet for numbers on the first day of the sale. By having people sign up for entry into the sale there wasn't any confusion about who was there ahead of whom. Have only one entrance/exit into the sale. This way no one can sneak into the sale ahead of someone else who has been patiently waiting their turn. It's also easier to handle checkout that way. The first two days we didn't accept any offers or reductions. At the end of the second day we took bids prior to the final day where everything was reduced to 50% off. If there were things we didn't want to let go at 50% off we removed them from the sale prior to the final day of the sale. No one seemed disappointed.
7. We may have been naïve but we weren't too worried about theft. What we were worried about was injury. Even though we had posted we were not responsible for accidents we were cautious about danger points in my Mon's house. The worst was her sunken living room that you could enter from two places. People were so focused on the merchandise that they failed to see our "Watch Your Step" signs and kept tumbling into the room. We posted people at both ends of the room and anytime someone approached the room the call went out, "WATCH YOUR STEP". No one was hurt but there were some pretty close calls.
8. You're going to meet some of the nicest people. Our local alderperson showed up in bib overalls and a big smile letting us know about neighborhood activities and names of local kids our daughter's age. The owner of the best antique mall in Madison gave us great advise and bought a ton of stuff. We gabbed with misplaced Southerners and New Yorkers about the advantages and disadvantages of living in Madison. Every neighbor made a visit and welcomed us once they found out we would be moving in to my Mom's house. We may even have met some future clients for our interior design business and my brother's stained glass business.
9. You're going to meet some of the weirdest people; the ones who want 50% off on a quarter item and the ones who'll stand in the middle of a room and tell everyone how overpriced everything is, or the ones who know everything about glass but can't tell the difference between a piece of contemporary art glass and a piece of glass from the late 19th century. These people were few and far between but most of them made us laugh or scratch our heads. Only one man yelled at us because on his third return visit for a $15 item on the 50% off day of sale another buyer beat him to it, legitimately getting in before him while he gabbed with another person missing his chance to get into the sale on time. We tried to tell him he should have paid the $15 on his other two visits but this didn't seem to appease him.
10. We did the sale as a family with everyone's voice being heard. With five siblings there is always the potential for hard feelings. I think we avoided this for the most part. We all worked hard. We all got something to keep. We saved those things with a value that went way beyond the monetary. We made some money for my Mom and her care. We survived.

The Artist's mother
John Dugdale, photographer
Represented by Holden Luntz Gallery, Palm Beach, Florida

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