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The Anatomy of Estate Sales, Part Two

by Jean Hubbell Asher

<< Part One

It's almost time and the pre-ordained line begins to form. At this point, no words are exchanged between the first 20 or so people holding numbers, the ones who will be able to enter the house in the first wave of estate sale customers.

  Inside the house there is considerable tension, though perhaps not on the scale of that outside the house. The workers are now in full work mode and wary ahead of time of making mistakes in the hysteria of the first few minutes, perhaps marking the wrong piece for the wrong dealer or allowing a small object to find its way into a stray pocket or purse. What an estate sale worker dreads the most in those few minutes is getting some of the more high strung dealers vying for the same sale pieces. There is nothing serene about the first half hour of the sale and we are steeling ourselves for this moment: 9:00am.

The man at the door starts calling out the numbers...1, ...2,....3, up to the number the size of the house and the work force can accommodate at one time. The rush is on. The whole experience of the first few minutes is surreal:  People are running everywhere, pointing and yelling, identifying their desired pieces to workers who follow, stickering these items with the buyer's name.  Buyers keep running and pointing and calling out, trying to get additional pieces while others throughout the room are doing exactly the same thing and often for the same item. They buy and buy without coming up for air and don't even take a few seconds to examine a piece because that will mean that they might lose out on something else. The volume is loud and the language often crude when they lose out on a coveted item.

  If the house is large, customers circle round and round, making sure there is nothing left for them to buy. Once the is shopping completed, sales slips are taken to the cashiers and goods are beginning to be packed up with the  purchases often being examined for the first time. It is now about 9:30am and although the sale has just begun, more than a third of the offerings have been sold. The first buyers begin to exit the house. 

  The impatience level for the next wave of buyers has been mounting with each passing minute. When the weather presents the problem of rain, snow, heat or cold there is understandably a lot of grousing from those waiting. At those times, it's hard to even explain to yourself why this mission is so urgent. But there you are, waiting until your number is called, watching as each person leaves the house, making sure the line keeps moving and always eyeing what is coming out of the house. Often, the object departing is just what you wanted but would you have moved quickly enough or would you have been willing to pay the price? It doesn't matter, the departing object is just what you wanted.

After the first hour, the line at the front door disappears, replaced by a steady stream of the hopeful. People continue to buy, but in a more deliberate manner. This pattern continues throughout the course of the two days the sale takes place with only one additional component: the bids. Bids are left in the Bid Book throughout the course of the first day and into the morning of the second day. The bid time period again attracts the more energetic buyers. The tempo of each sale varies but this pattern of twin peaks--the early crowd and bid time--remains consistent.

  The two-day sale has, in fact, been weeks and sometimes months in the making. The usual scenario follows a routine:  the owner is moving and has to clear out the house. The owners are taking the things they value most but much remains to be sold. Options would include selling the better pieces outright to a dealer or consigning them to a resale company or to an action house; contacting an estate sale company or running a sale themselves. By the time they contact an estate sale company, they have usually decided this last option too daunting a task, one for which they lack both the expertise and the time.

Canning & Watson is one of the many firms in the North East area that the owners might call in to explore the estate sale route. An estate sale company will, as the owner's agent, sell the entire contents of the house down to the last can opener. For the inevitable pieces that don't sell, the company will arrange for a clean-up crew, a donation to a charity or, in some cases, placing pieces on consignment. In other words, they like other estate sale firms, are full service. Estate sale firms also offer the advantage of a lump sum payment rather than the piecemeal payments of a consignment firm and most auction houses. 

On a first visit to a property, an estate sale company will assess the inventory to be sold and the general terms of the sale,  such as the approximate date which is usually dependent upon the house sale closing date,  and their commission rate. A company will also assess their own ability to work with the owner. The owner, I might add, is also taking stock of their prospective estate sale agents and comparing them to other venues they have explored and evaluating their commission rate. If all the factors seem favorable to both parties a contract is signed. 


     In Part Three of the series, we'll focus on a sale that made these formalities almost secondary due to the potential worth of this particular estate sale.

Part Three >>

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