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The Theater of Estate Sales

by Jeanne Hubbell Asher

What all estate sales have in common is the element of theater.  There are two aspects of the staged event:  the behind the scenes phase of set up and the public face of the sale itself.  Both aspects of the sale are rich subjects for high drama, theater of the absurd or sometimes a farce.  Perhaps the sales could best be described as improvisational with deeply moving personal sagas tempered with, in some instances, comic relief.

The main characters for these plays are the owners, the sellers who are the professional group hired to run the sale and the buyers.  Sometimes even the inanimate objects, the items to be sold, take on a life of their own. All the characters touch these objects for a moment in time.  The per diem workers are both vital participants as well as being observers not quite central to the main plot. It is the location of the sale and the prominence of the house acting as scenery and stage set that are the key elements; a good setting attracts a wide audience.  The core themes of the sale are played out between the interrelationships of the main characters — the owners, the sellers and the buyers

Before the curtain rises on a sale there are a predictable list of chores to be performed:  physically setting up the sale, pricing, appraising, bringing in the props (showcases, tables, signs, marking materials), arranging for police to direct traffic, getting a permit from the town and promoting the sale through ads. 

Routine chores take on a life of their own in the workings between owner and seller.  The owner generally leaves during the actual sale but in the pre-sale phase is a dominant force.  Many owners are very reluctant to part with their possessions; they have already sold their house and find it difficult to let go of these furnishings.  Although they have hired professionals to run the sale, the owners often want to micro-manage. They might balk at prices or remove a piece from the agreed upon inventory.  These tensions express much about the human resistance to change — especially when the change means downsizing.

One rather painful sale was for just such a pair of owners: an antiques dealer and her husband who were moving to a retirement community down South.  The wife was clearly not reconciled to the move.  Her despair was compounded by the task at hand: selling their personal belongings which their new house could not accommodate and giving up her business with all its inventory.  As hard as she tried to mask her despair it would become more obvious as each piece was priced that first day of set-up.  She had hoped against hope that everything would be priced at full retail market value.

Intellectually she understood the limitations of selling in bulk over a two day period.  They had, in fact, explored all other options (an auction, a private sale, putting things in storage) before signing a contract with an established estate sale company. Two days after the sale the house had to be broom clean for the new owner; they had allowed no breathing room for Plan B.  Reality trumped her despair.

After that first day, set-up week went well.  It was physically demanding on us all as we filled the basement with the contents of the attic. It was logistically demanding as we tried to set up in and around the furniture they were keeping which would not be moved out until two days prior to the sale. And it was time consuming; there were literally more than a thousand plus items to price.  Both she and her husband had an extensive personal collection of smalls, mostly boxes and banks. 

They seemed appreciative of our attention to detail and were very gracious.  We had daily coffee breaks with them, sometimes lunch.  They were helpful at every turn.  During those breaks they provided us with research on everything in question.  This helped enormously with the pricing. The night before the sale everyone was pleased.  The house looked great and the prices, although a bit on the optimistic side, were within the realm of possibility.

When we arrived at the sale the next morning, however, we found that most prices had been changed on pieces large and small.  The owners (or was it just the wife) had gone through the house with their own marking pens crossing out all of the original prices.  It must have taken them the better part of the night.  We experienced a sinking feeling that comes with running a sale, knowing that you have been priced out of the market. 

Instead of the usual brisk buying frenzy, many buyers looked, admired and walked out empty handed.  Over the course of the two day sale many things found buyers but the success of the sale was capped before it even began.

The owners stayed at the house those two days.  They would poke their heads around the corner to see what had sold.  It must have been agonizing for them to see that so many prized possessions went begging for a buyer.  The buyers themselves were disappointed with the sale, frustrated that the sellers had set such high limits on the inventory.  The sellers were depleted by all the effort that had gone into the sale only to have the owners undermine their efforts.  On a much deeper level, however, it was sad to think of the hours the owners had spent repricing item after item.  Here they were at the end of the day with more than they could ever use for their new smaller quarters.  They had been guided by their heartfelt resistance to moving and it was costly. 

Indeed, the stories of the owners could fill a book and then some.  The circumstance in which they find themselves at the point when they need to move determines, in large measure, how they will respond to impending changes.  This common human experience which we all face or have already faced is probably reflected in the following thumbnail sketches of various owners.

One owner had lived in a small apartment filled with Scandinavian antiques which reflected her heritage. She was suffering, though, from the ravages of Alzheimer’s.  Her children had found a nursing home for her and were eager to sell the contents of her condo.  Her possessions were cut, burned, broken, slashed and in disarray.  The owner was past the point of knowing or caring that these damaged goods were highly desirable because of her once pedigreed eye.   It was her children who were delighted to have the condo cleared out and to receive a check for what they had considered to be junk.

Some owners are very unsentimental about the whole process.  A woman in her seventies was leaving her contemporary suburban house for a farmhouse in Maryland, replete with pigs living both indoors and out, chickens, llamas — and a fourth husband.  She was emotionally attached to nothing but she did know what she had in terms of value.  She was more than happy to see something sell as long as it met her price.  The unsentimental ones tend to be people who are moving on to a happier place. 

A totally detached owner, interested only in maximizing his profit, was a contractor who had purchased the house and contents from the estate of a local veterinarian.  Working for him was tedious; his financial expectations unrealistic.  But the shadow of the deceased veterinarian hung over the sale and working for this man we never met was a pleasure.  The doctor had been a master woodcarver and had a passion for duck carving - his extensive collection of  carved birds was in fact the feature of the sale. He had been a very generous man, judging from arrangements he made for his housekeeper after his death.  He had been a very loving husband, judging by the tender daily notes to his wife, who predeceased him.  He had been highly literate, judging by his well worn books.  The deceased owner carried this sale. 

 

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