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The Theater of Estate Sales

Page Two

Occasionally there is an owner who defies characterization.  This particular couple, with college age children,  had only lived in their current house for a couple of years.  Prior to moving, they had sold the entire contents of their former house, lavishly redecorating the new house from scratch.  Then the husband was downsized, they had to relocate and, once again, they sold the entire contents of the house down to the last photo.  Their detachment was incomprehensible and well out of the norm. 

Another owner was a widower from another country who, broken hearted by his wife’s death, was further devastated by the sale of their belongings which had been so important to her.  He had been a bachelor for some 50 years before marrying this beautiful, elegant, accomplished woman.  She was a decorator with a very keen eye and a playwright.  Their belongings were such a reflection of her that selling them in an estate sale was as though he was losing her for a second time.  They had only recently moved to this location, trying to scale back their lifestyle, and he experienced no trouble selling the house but selling their things brought tears to his eyes. In contemplating his own future, he was unable to envision living in this country without her and moved back to his home country where he felt more rooted.

Sometimes a sale brings to the fore the fragility of a family structure.  Even when a parent or parents are still living, there is usually one sibling who carries the responsibility and resentment concerning the details of the sale from others in the family.  Internecine feuds develop over who gets what; it is both a very understandable scenario and yet very painful to watch.  For some families these fissures are never made whole.

For the elderly living in their houses, these sales are especially devastating.  For starters, they don’t want to leave their house.  They are often unable to deal not only with putting their things up for sale but living through the chaos of a sale set up.  These physically and emotionally vulnerable people are watching as you scrutinize and price their belongings.  To compound the problem, most often the movers have already packed up what they are taking to their new quarters which may be in an assisted living situation.  The frail owners can only see what items are priced for sale and yet can’t visualize that their special things are going with them, now hidden from view in box after box.  There is a real concern that these sellers might have some devastating reaction to what is going on around them.  Maintaining a heightened sensitivity to this scenario and meeting the sale deadline is a tricky balance.

Some owners are shrouded in mystery.  A weekend house was the setting for a small sale initiated by the almost ex-wife of a young man who mysteriously died.  The sellers knew only that the almost ex-wife and the about-to-have-been new wife wanted to reclaim their personal belongings which they did in a revolving door fashion. 

One woman, divorced from her husband was a shopaholic; everywhere were boxes of unopened merchandise and rack upon rack of unworn clothes with original tags.   Even the logistics of this sale were impossible as it was at the top of a succession of long, winding roads, a problem resolved by hiring a shuttle bus.  The frantically acquired merchandise was the physical evidence of her illness and a problem with deep roots. The sale was a success in financial terms but it was disturbing for us all to invade a life that had spiraled out of control.

In general there is a common link between the owners in that they have had a privileged life.  I don’t know if their angst at scaling down is made more difficult by this fact.  I only know that it is almost uniformly difficult.

The sellers who are the professional estate sale companies are the producer/director of sales, creating a union between the owners and the buyers.  The metropolitan New York area has a plethora of resale companies with new ones sprouting up and long established firms continuing on.  My frame of reference was a Darien CT based firm for whom I worked for more than a decade.

The owners were often asked why would you do this business?  It is physically demanding, sometimes degrading and sometimes just plain filthy work, often tedious.  They would say, in fact do say, that it puts them on a never-ending learning curve; exposes them constantly to interesting situations and they are both ecstatic when they get a great sale affording endless diversity in their work life.  All things considered, an interesting business.

So you have the owners, the sellers and then the buyers.  There are two categories of buyers.  The early crowd has a mission and they are intense about it.  These buyers come and go quickly in that first hour of the sale and don’t reappear until the next day.  They bring their intensity back as they check out the status of bids they might have left for pieces which interest them but not at full price.

The majority of the buyers come after that first hour of the sale.  They want time to really look at pieces before they make a decision.   In asking a lot of these people why they come their answers are fairly predictable: the thrill of the hunt, acquiring pieces with a history or just being able to buy quality or uniqueness at reduced prices.  For some, sales are a lifestyle and what they do on weekends.  Some are voyeurs; they rarely buy but like looking at these high end houses.  Some of the older crowd say they are looking in order to furnish their children’s apartments.  Although that may be true, this group would probably come even if they were childless.  And then there’s always the new generation of buyers,  the thirty-somethings furnishing their first homes.  All of the reasons for coming to the sale touch upon an aspect of why but no description can really define the allure of a sale.

Some buyers are a constant for every sale.  One man, the son of a very important, now deceased, American dealer comes, buying things in the $1-$5 range. One dealer, who owns properties in New Canaan, New York and Palm Beach, buys not for resale but odds and ends to furnish her various houses and those of her children.  Her interest in sales dates back to her weekly forays with her mother.  Many of the young retail crowd, mostly women, have the wherewithal to buy anything, anywhere, any time but they like the originality and the prices of what they find at sales.  Many come just at the end of the sale when prices are reduced.  Some are buying things they need like a set of glasses or dishes; some others just need to buy.

I have an image of one buyer seared in my memory — an image implanted from the days when I was one of those early buyers.  As I walked in the door of a magnificent house in Greenwich, I spotted a piece of furniture that I had to have.  I was almost running to the piece but stopped abruptly.  I had become transfixed by a scene at the silver table: a man and a woman each clutching with one hand a silver bowl while, with the other hand, having a fist fight.  The scuffle lasted less than a minute, at which point they put the bowl down and walked away from the table.  The coveted piece of silver turned out to be plate not sterling.  I, of course, lost the wonderful piece of furniture I had to have; there is no such thing as a minute delay at a sale in the quest for something you want. I have forgotten the piece of furniture but not the woman throwing the jabs.  She turned out to be the silver appraiser for the firm where I would eventually work.

As antiques have become more scarce, many dealers tend to be more generalized, caring less about the country of origin or even date of pieces and more about “the look”.  Most sales will be of interest to this type of dealer.  Other dealers have a narrow focus — silver, art, rugs — which make up a part of most sales.  They too appear with regularity.

For others, though, the sale is only appealing when it offers their specialty.  These tend to be the high end dealers.  If the sale reads American we can expect one group — two or three dealers from Woodbury, one from New Canaan, even one man who is blind.  He comes with his wife and feels the furniture to see if it’s 'right'.  For an English sale, the group will be different.  If there’s good Victorian furniture a dealer from New Haven will be there. Sometimes you don’t see these narrow niche dealers for months on end because they don’t buy unless it fills a spot in their specialized inventory. 

When dealers come early to a sale their competition is limited to the first wave of buyers.  They’re quick.  They buy; haul whatever out to their van. Done. One hour maximum.  For private house calls they are bidding against unknown people the owner may have contacted.  At auction they wait all day for the chance to bid against a room full of like minded hopefuls.  Estate sales are a very attractive option for buying which helps to explain the intensity of the pre-sale lineup. 

The retail crowd benefits equally from sales and being able to buy on a par with dealers at a wholesale level.

There is just one central player left in most of these dramas:  an inanimate object. In this case, the object was a Regency game table.  The table was featured in an ad for a sale to be held at an historic waterfront home in Darien.  The first inquiry about the table came from an Irishman in Belfast.  His inquiry was, in fact, an impassioned plea to pre-purchase the Regency table which he claimed had belonged to his family.  His grandfather had been forced to sell in a time of financial distress but he and his brother were now trying to buy back pieces for the castle. Indeed, he had a photo of his grandfather standing at this very table. 

The sellers had a firm policy not to pre-sell.  This was explained but the Irishman could not be placated.  They finally agreed to discuss the situation with the owner’s daughter, who was handling her family’s estate.  Reluctantly, but with mutual consent it was agreed to pre-sell the table.  When the Irishman did not meet the conditions of the sale, which included sending his payment in a timely fashion, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  During the subsequent investigation in the episode, the sellers had to confront the fact that they had been duped: the bidder was a greedy dealer and not a man separated by hard times from his family’s table.  In fact, this particular dealer was well known to many and unadmired by all. 

The table was displayed at the sale with a sign up sheet for those who might be interested in buying it at a later date.  A law suit was pending so the fate of the table would have to wait for legal clearance.  The Irishman blinked; the suit never materialized and many months later the table was sold to the high bidder on that sign up sheet. The marriage of the table to a buyer was the final transaction of this sale.

When the curtain closes on a sale, the set-up process reverses itself.  The few unsolds are packed up to be donated or reclaimed by the owner, the props including the signs and the tables now fill two station wagons.  The money is counted and deposited and two weeks later the owners receive a check which usually pleases them.  The next month the props will be readied for another sale and the process begins again.

©Jeanne Hubbell Asher for

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