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The Anatomy of Estate Sales, Part One

by Jean Hubbell Asher

The thrill of the hunt, beating the system, however one defines it , tag sale fever abounds in the New York suburbs and, for that matter, around the country whether on the scene or over the Internet. By any name, be it tag sale, garage sale, yard sale,  they're all means of getting rid of things you no longer want or need. It's like cleaning house and getting paid for it. These are high energy events: quick decisions, brisk sales, in and out and on to the next sale. For the faithful, sales are not only a part of their vocabulary but, indeed, an essential part of the fabric of their lives.  It becomes a weekend ritual as common for some as going to a religious service.

An estate sale is the crown jewel of tag sales. It is the sale of an owner's belongings at the owner's house, managed and run by a professional estate sale company. These companies generally have a bottom line and accept only those sales which make sense financially. In essence, their pre-screening of a sale means that it will be a quality sale.

All my adult life I have been going to every variation of a tag sale. It is how I have furnished my house; helped with my children's various residences; bought and sold to various dealers; found pieces for my decorating clients; done my Christmas shopping. As a buyer standing in line waiting, waiting, waiting for my number to be called, I am a bit breathless in anticipation; what treasures lurk may behind the closed door?

As a consumer, though, the real dynamics of an estate sale eluded me until I started working, many years ago, for Canning & Watson, a long-established estate sale company based in Darien, Ct.  Being immersed in these sales for a two-day period provides an unique vantage point for seeing a sale in its totality. The behind the scenes stories of these sales are funny and sad, profound and trivial. Every estate sale company would have their stories to tell but these are the stories that I know.

The door to the sale opens at 9 am but by 8 am the action has already begun. Most estate sales are in the high rent districts with manicured lawns and, when they emerge, manicured people. Early in the morning on the day of a sale, the neighborhood serenity is assaulted by a crowd of 100 or more people milling about with drivers of cars and vans jostling for parking spaces. The neighbors are probably reassured by the presence of a policeman directing traffic but less than pleased about this particular crowd who clearly are not from the neighborhood.

The majority of the early crowd consist of dealers whose lifeline is finding salable merchandise. For some, their car is more like a home filled with yesterday's trash and stash. These few have probably slept in their cars to gain early access to sale. Their bed heads betray them. The other sale regulars are in 'get up and go' garb: a bit ragtag, all body types and in every conceivable mode of dress,  propelled by a sense of urgency  to get to the sale early.  The few in the crowd who are more carefully dressed are most likely to be  neighbors or friends of the owner. 

  The common denominator of this melting pot is an intense desire to buy.  In all likelihood, the dealers have several pieces in mind while the retail buyer is more apt to be interested in a specific piece for their house. The neophytes (neighbors and friends of the owner who have never been to an estate sale) are rather stunned to find this assemblage of informed and, shall we say, eager buyers. It becomes very obvious that most of the early crowd have studied the ads and know what to expect from this sale. 

The ads for the sale are in the local newspapers and Antiques and the Arts Weekly, affectionately know as The Bee. This journal is the dealer's Bible for all things relating to antiques including several pages of ads dedicated to professionally run estate sales. There are usually quite a few sales scheduled for the same day and starting time, which present an obvious quandary for the faithful tag sale goer. The urgency of the prose used in the ads is to create a 'can't miss' mentality while accurately reflecting the merchandise for sale. In addition to the featured merchandise paired with photos in The Bee, the ads list the particulars: date, time, general directions and, in the case of professional sales, their system for giving out numbers. 

Canning & Watson has come up with a relatively simple solution to this problem: a four hour call in period for pre-sale numbers on a first come, first serve basis. This has dramatically reduced the frayed nerves of the early crowd as they exchange their pre-sale numbers for the official numbers handed out at 8 am the day of the sale. This is a rather civilized system in stark contrast to the pandemonium of earlier years, when Canning & Watson, along with most estate sale firms, left the inner workings of a pre-sale number system to the wit or whims of the first person on the scene. 

For a really great sale, that first person might have arrived days in advance; sleeping in his car, handing out pre-sale numbers and waiting for the sale to begin. Cars and vans clogging the streets were endearing to none; the neighbors in their upscale neighborhoods, the police who were called on occasion and the public, who felt the system was rigged. The real impetus for change came in response to that first person on the scene and he was the same man, sale after sale.  His interest was not in the sale, per se,  but in selling numbers for the sale. The estate sale personnel never really knew the inner workings of his scheme as it was not part of their own sale protocol. They did know, however, that they wanted, indeed needed, to refine the pre-sale number system, diffusing the chaos and ill will while maintaining the competitive drive which fuels the success of a sale. 

The dozen or so workers for the sale begin to arrive shortly before 8 am. As they approach the house they see the clusters of people talking, drinking coffee, peering in the windows, wandering the grounds - a relatively calm image, at this point.  This veneer of calm is is akin to a lull before a storm; when the door to the sale opens these same people at 9 am may truly represent the eye of a storm. But for now, workers and buyers exchange pleasantries as the workers enter the inner sanctum which houses the merchandise, closing the door behind them. Everybody has an agenda: the workers want civility from the buyers and the buyers want the good will for the workers, hoping it will give them an edge later on. 
    Once inside, the workers are usually encountering the contents for the first time. Surveying the house, not working, is their first priority. As it nears 9 am, they ready themselves for work, getting their name tags, cash books and, all importantly,  room assignments. 

Meanwhile, outside more and more people continue to arrive and as the minutes progress toward the 9 am opening, the level of tension for the buyers is palpable. You can see it in their body language, pacing up and down, rapid first questions mouthed to workers inside. Their noses are now pressed against the window panes as they weigh their strategies: the living room first for the console table or the dining room for the sideboard? They are also assessing their competition. They ask, not quite casually, of a competing dealer, what number do they have? The civility of the question hardly masks the intensity of their rivalry. Further unsettling the known competition equation as the 'just plain folks' milling about; their wants are unknown.

Part Two >>

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