Estate Sale

A few blocks up the road from where I live there was an estate sale last weekend.

The deal with these for those who don’t know, is that you hire a company to advertise and create interest in the sale, come into a house, tag everything up with prices and try to liquidate the stuff. In exchange, the company gets a cut, of course. This particular estate sale was very well attended.

The road that I live on had cars parked all along it for the majority of the time that the sale was open. I think that more people have taken up this type of thing as a hobby. I can certainly see the appeal of getting something for cheap and re-selling it on Ebay or Craigslist or wherever. And most (all?) of these transactions, I would assume, go under the radar of the tax man.

This particular house was of some interest to me since it was the Frau Becker’s house. I had a passing acquaintance with Frau Becker – she always had a little dog of some sort and she walked it in the neighborhood. When I was outside doing yard work or whatever, we always had a little light conversation. A nice lady. I asked my wife about the sale and assumed she had moved away. My wife told me that Frau Becker died a few years ago from ovarian cancer. Sad news, that. I suppose the husband finally died too, and that was the reason for the sale.

While I wasn’t close to Frau Becker, I knew her. So yesterday when I sauntered down to the sale to see what was left, it was sort of like seeing part of her that I didn’t know about.

So many chemicals and lubricants. There was a nice, barely used lathe in the basement that they were selling “dutch auction” style.

Lots of airline glassware. The Frau flew first class back and forth from the homeland, it appears. And kept the glassware. Or do you get that for free up in the front of the plane?

She kept sewing kits from all over the place. You know, the little free ones that you get in hotels? I imagine the Frau came from a depression time where you kept pretty much everything you could.


Maps from every country of Europe.

A mass of costume jewelry here, a pile of magazines there. I imagine the good jewelry was sold elsewhere by the family.

Lots of old books – in German. Those don’t do me any good.

Unwritten post cards.

An old HP laptop battery.

The dresser where Frau Becker used to keep her clothes. The dressers were quite nice but I didn’t dare bring home a piece of furniture without the express written consent of my secretary of interior decorating (i.e. the wife).

It was an interesting half hour that I spent in Frau Becker’s home. I had never attended a sale like this and it was a neat feeling to be able (yea, encouraged) to rifle through someone’s personal effects. Since I knew the Frau, I was a bit creeped out, but not too much.

I may attend a sale like this in the future. I wonder if I will think about the deceased the next time. I am sure I will – that is the historian in me.

I was reminded of a great lesson. In the end, it is all crap that you can’t take with you. It was good for me to get that reminder.

Cross Posted at LITGM.

24 thoughts on “Estate Sale”

  1. Dan – some years ago I became a trustee for a nice old British couple. That experience – I could write a book – but I always remember something someone said.

    “When I die, I don’t want to see my life spread out on a lawn for people to see.”

    Interesting view and a view I can sympathize with. For me, just call in the movers, empty my house and take it to the SPCA.

    You can’t take it with you, I cam constantly reminded and with time, moreover, who would want to? ;-)

    And no, we didn’t sell their stuff on the lawn….

  2. Hmm, we sure need an editing function but it is apparent by I didn’t turn off an html tag….

  3. When I lived in the Washington suburbs I would go to local estate sales from time to time. Many of the people there had been in the military, diplomatic service, or other parts of government that involved foreign travel or residence. There were a great many interesting books and artifacts, far more than I had time or occasion to make use of. (The magnificence and elaborateness of medals and certificates of appreciation from Third World governments would appear to be in inverse proportion to the size and GDP of the country, for instance.) But you could imagine the stories that such items implied.

  4. My luck with estate sales has been sort of hit and miss. My best was a purely random find while driving back from the store when I stumbled up an estate sale for a recently deceased and retired instructor at ITT automotive. The broker didn’t advertise/market it properly and it was the find of a lifetime. I bought about $20K worth of hand tools, precision measurement items, machine tool bits, and other goodies for $500.

    Another great random encounter, I bought an old Victor safe at an estate sale in Palos. The daughter didn’t know the combination and refused to take less than $4K for it because she was “sure” dad had some old German Lugers and coins in it. I asked her why she didn’t have a safe cracker open it up, and she said she couldn’t afford it … sounded like a load, so I worked on her and her brothers for nearly 2 hours negotiating them down to $500. It took me and three of my friends to move it home and when the locksmith got it opened it was empty. Although he cost me $800 ($500 to come out, and $150/hr) I was able to sell the safe for $1200 so I wasn’t out too much money.

    But too often I run into sales with mediocre merchandise thats too highly priced and the people running it simply do not want to negotiate. I was haggling over a used Kitchenaid mixer that was priced at $250 at one of the “bad ones” and was explaining that I could buy a new one for less than that and I didn’t think it was worth more than $125 … wouldn’t budge.

    Still, never had a day out estate saling where I didn’t enjoy myself.

  5. Mike H – well I started out with low expectations and those were met. I enjoyed looking through the old books even though I couldn’t read them (in German) and seeing some of the flotsam that the Frau and Herr Becker had collected over their lifetimes. The people there running the sale were wanting to wheel and deal as this was the second day of the sale and they were really putting the full court press on to get the crap gone. I think most of the “good” stuff was picked over the first day. The sellers did a good job advertising it apparently, and they had yard signs all over the neighborhood in the days leading up to the sale. They are still going to need a BIG dumpster.

  6. When I wasn’t working I thought i would make some money off ebay combing estate sales. A neighbor whose niece makes a nice living ($1500-$2500)selling costume jewelry she finds at estate sales.

    Well I learned that after driving all over town (and my town is pretty big) most of the good stuff was long gone – bought by the company listing the stuff? in the case of the niece she knows what women like – I don’t (boy that is a pandora’s box but we’ll leave it at that) – anyway after about 20 such trips I felt most of the good stuff was already taken.

    One, near my house, advertised “collectable paintings” – well it was crap – like velvet Elvis pictures.

    Now an interesting place for this is Palm Springs – elderly people dying – their 2nd home – usually very good furniture and other things – same thing with their consignment shops – wealthy people wanting to redo their homes…

  7. @Bill – my mother in law runs estate sales, and the really good stuff never sees the light of day – all goes to higher end sales/dealers. The somewhat good stuff is around for the early birds.

  8. @ Bill, Dan hits the nail … all the really great stuff is sold at auction or via consignment and the rest of the decent items are gone about an hour after the sales starts. But still, you can find some nice usable things at estate sales and garage sales … yard tools, dishes, silverware and everyday items like that.

    I do a lot of woodworking, so things like clamps, hardware, solvents, sandpaper, etcetera can be had for about $.05 on the dollar. You gotta know what you are looking for and where to look.

  9. @Mike

    That is what I suspected. Although when I asked the agent by the 10th house – asking if they are skimming the best before it is opened, she emphatically denied it ;-)

    Still, I wonder if they think of the people that are turned off by this (and stopped going) over short term gains?

    Tools, furniture can be had for pennies on the dollar though…

  10. We’ve actually picked up some interesting stuff at estate sales – and if I had a couple of hundred or so to spare, I could have gotten some very nice vintage or antique furniture at some of them. You could outfit a household – or a home workshop very inexpensively. I am pretty certain, though – that all the best stuff goes to the family. What’s left is what winds up at the estate sale.
    Now and again there are fantastic and unexpected finds: I remember seeing an episode of Antiques Roadshow where a woman who collected vintage costume jewelry showed up with half a dozen of her rhinestone brooches: each one of which she picked up at an estate, or garage or thrift shop for about $5 or less. Five of the brooches were nice cut-glass or paste stones … but the sixth, which looked to have fifteen or twenty clear gems the size of garbanzo beans set in some silvery-toned metal starburst design … they were diamonds, set in platinum: The collector about fell over, when the jewelry expert told her that. She had just picked it out of a jumble of costume jewelry in a box at an estate sale. You can just imagine how it would have happened: an elderly person had a bunch of costume jewelry, and maybe a couple of real pieces, all piled together, and the person died, and whoever was sorting it all out, just assumed it was all flashy costume jewelry. (The diamond and platinum piece WAS really flashy!)
    I’d love to have a find like that, something buried amongst the junk.

  11. My 2 brothers and I spent the last weekend splitting up the last parts of my mother’s estate, the jewelry and the silverware. We have actually accomplished the whole project fairly quickly and without any fights. But, it was an enormous amount of work.

    Getting her condo cleaned up and sold took about six months and some back breaking work. The floors were made out of weird limestone that would not come clean. Fortunately we sold it quickly, although for about half of what she paid for it less than 10 years ago. Our other bit of good luck was that the buyer needed furniture because she had to move in quickly, so we didn’t have to try to sell the furniture that family members did not want, which included a dinning room table that could not be easily moved.

    A number of factors made a house sale like the ones described above impossible. First, she lived in a high rise condo, that would not let random people in. Second, she had a lot of very delicate art work — glass sculptures — that can not be handled by the merely curious, and jewelry — I don’t want to think about the security problems.

    Nonetheless, I totally get it now that all my precious stuff will be useless old junk to my children and grandchildren. So, we intend to attack the basement with renewed vigor ASAP.

    Another lesson. My mother had an absolutely psychotic thing about my sister-in-law, who had never done or said anything against my mother. My mother told everybody in the family that under no circumstances should that sister-in-law receive any of her jewelry. This weekend the sister-in-law took her third of the jewelry and we are all very happy about it. Please spare me discussions of codicils and trusts. I am a lawyer, I know all about them. I also know that my mother was psychotic and drug addled.

    Here is the real lesson. After you die, you will have no further input into what happens to your stuff. Your family will decide what happens, and there won’t be a blessed thing you can do about it. If you have done your job well, or if you are lucky, they will get along, make consensus decisions and not fight. If you don’t think they can, you better dispose of as much of the stuff as you can while you are alive, and give the money to a worthy cause.

  12. Robert – I received a hard lesson in wills and trusts when a close friend of mine was murdered. Of course she had no idea that she would die that day, and her sister spent days going through dresser drawers trying to piece together her financial life.

    It was a lesson to get a will or trust made – I was surprised at the number of people who die without one. Then the state decides how your assets will be dispersed.

    Even as a trustee for some old friends, the wife – last to die – with a brain tumor – was talked into getting a trust made 3 weeks before her death by the family lawyer. We have often talked about how that would have gone with no trust or documents.

    And be specific. While she specified that she wanted to be cremated and be “together” with her husbands cremated remains, I interpreted that as having a “tupperware” party at her wake – mixing her husband’s ashes.

    Another trustee, fearing a lawsuit by the family – decided we shouldn’t do that. Well, I am rambling on, lots to say but have to get up at 05:00 –

  13. Good comment Robert. When my wife and I had our wills and trusts created years ago we had a wish that when we died our ashes would be spread in New Orleans, where we eloped. Well, the lawyer calmly told us that is was foolish to even put that in there, and that when you are dead you really don’t have any say over…anything.

    “Here is the real lesson. After you die, you will have no further input into what happens to your stuff. Your family will decide what happens, and there won’t be a blessed thing you can do about it. If you have done your job well, or if you are lucky, they will get along, make consensus decisions and not fight. If you don’t think they can, you better dispose of as much of the stuff as you can while you are alive, and give the money to a worthy cause.” – outstanding quote.

  14. “While she specified that she wanted to be cremated and be “together” with her husbands cremated remains, I interpreted that as having a “tupperware” party at her wake – mixing her husband’s ashes.”

    Putting funeral instructions in a will is not very effective. The will may or may not be found or consulted before the funeral.

    My father wanted to be cremated. My mother, out of religious scruple, would not hear of it. So we buried him. When she died we buried her next to him. We have not heard him complain.

  15. Robert – I’ll bet you could write a book on strange and funny cases you’ve had.

    I had a late aunt who was the “Black Sheep” of the family – despised by all.

    But she hated my mother the worst.

    She died alone and guess who is picked as her executor? ;-)

    Interesting on death arrangements – if a decedent’s burial wishes weren’t done by the executor would other family members have a “cause of action”?

    In the trust I was in, the wife said that she’d like to be cremated and her ashes scattered overseas – but it wasn’t in the trust. I was ready to pay my own way but was talked out of it.

    But then from what I understand it doesn’t matter. Then too there is no “injury” to the surviving family members. Maybe “emotional pain”?

    There was a big case up this way about a company who was “supposed” to scatter cremated ashes according to the wishes of the deceased, and instead of flying over the ocean, going to the mountains, wherever, they all ended up in a commercial storage lot – 1000s of boxes of ashes.

    Wonder how that ended up, legally….

  16. My grandfather was a founding member of the Florida Auctioneer’s Association, and worked virtually all of his later life (after moving finally, for keeps, to Florida ca. 1953) doing estate sales. He always liked estate sales because, he said, the dead don’t complain about how much you got for this or that item (“$100? I paid $300 for that, that’s not right!!”)

    Estate sales operators today are an iffy bunch. Beware of auctions that have minimum bids (my grandfather never, ever allowed them — all his auctions were true auctions: you got it for the highest bid, even if you were the only bidder and you bid 50 cents), and also be wary of auctions run by auctioneers with shills in the audience, who run up the price but really never buy anything. You’ll know them by their bidding on any low-priced item but never, or almost never, being the final bidder — also by the near absolute lack of any direction in what they are bidding on… they’ll bid on machine tools, kitchen stuff, clothes, collectible figurines, whatever. Most people go to such auctions with a target set of objects they are interested in… even the e-bay types know the prices they think they can get for something on e-bay, and it’s usually not a wide array of item types.

    But don’t get me wrong, they can be fun. I was never the type to be interested in the activity, though I often got extra money working as a runner when I got old enough to be responsible at the task — it was very much a family business… on sale days he’d have family members putting items up n the podium for sale, taking them back down, recording the prices, and tallying the results.

    Setup is very much a labor-intensive operation, you have to have a mechanism for tagging a wide array of items without permanently damaging them, and not everything has a “handle” you can tie a tag onto, and you must be wary of marring any surface. It also pays to be aware of what numbers and tags were applied to what, since customers will try and switch tags for any number of dishonest reasons, both before and after an item is sold (for example, buying lot 127 for $2 and switching numbers with lot 128, something they wanted, which went for $44), as well as to “stealthily combine” two lots into one they purchased, both of the auction versions of shoplifting.

    The classic “auctioneer patter” in which it’s never clear what the amount is is the sign of a bad or lazy auctioneer, by the way. With a good auctioneer, you generally know exactly what the amount is and what he’s trying to raise the next bid to. And accidentally “buying” something by scratching your back is generally a hoary cliche — any good auctioneer will make eye contact, not taking only the motion as a bid — you should be looking them in the eye to make a bid. When you get to know an auctioneer from repeated visits to their auctions, you’ll even get it down to a simple action, like a slight nod of the head with the aforementioned eye contact. This is not to say that there are never errors, but, if you inadvertently bought something, you can generally and immediately call it to the attention of the personnel running the auction, and they should be willing to put it back up as a bidding error.

    If you’re buying more than one or two items, it’s also a good idea to keep track of them — both the numbers and a quick description of what they are (or, at the least, what specific item[s] of interest that were in the lot to cause you to bid on it). When you go to check out, compare your list to what they are attempting to give you. In addition to the actions of a “shoplifter”, some auctioneers might disreputably add an unsold item at a made-up bid to your list of items. And yes, it can happen that someone makes an error… if they aren’t using a computerized lot-tracking system, someone might misread a handwritten “253” for a dyslexic “235” and inadvertently and totally honestly give you the wrong item entirely. Not saying that any of that happens a lot, but, they are human, they are dealing, often, with hundreds of disparate items, and, until you give them the money, you’re technically not responsible for anything you’ve bid on in most venues. But with most auctions, “all sales are final” — if you give them money, then five minutes later find that mint condition Honus Wagner baseball card you spotted isn’t in what you bought, well, tough, ’cause you’re outta luck.

  17. And yeah, you can get some great deals, esp. with a fully reputable auctioneer running it (unfortunately, state licensure requirements have generally had the unintended consequence of weeding out the honest ones).

    I got an entire set of 1905 Encyclopedia Brittanicas for $5 bucks at one sale (Why? Think of all the knowledge in them that has been removed because it’s clearly not “relevant” to the modern era, like, say, how to build a cotton gin to separate cotton from its seeds. Or how to care for horses and cattle… Not saying it’s a lot of use, but if anything ever happened to this complex system of ours, it would Be A Real Good Thing to have access to that sort of knowledge. And it cost five bucks and a 5′ shelf.)

    Another time, there was this poor guy retired from Bell South in Jacksonville after working for them for about 50 years. His wife died, and he was alone, and he spent a lot of his retirement bonus on various tools, like a floor-mount standing drill press, a vast array of hand tools (both for mechanics and for carpentry), a bunch of other large items like a full router table with all the accessories, and so forth. Then he had a stoke, and had to give up the house he was living in for a small three-bedroom-no-garage condo in an assisted living area… all the brand-new tools were moved into the two spare bedrooms, packed floor to ceiling, all wrapped in the original plastic and boxes… Then he had a second stroke that killed him almost instantly a couple years later, never using any of the tools. We handled that estate auction, and, despite efforts to get some interested bidders there, stuff went remarkably cheap — I bid on, and won a couple items, because the prices in some cases were just insanely low that I couldn’t see letting them get away for that cheap (I could never buy anything for re-sale, only for my own use)… I got the aforementioned router-with-accessories for about $25 as I recall. I think the drill press went for like $50 (the only reason I didn’t bid on that was that I had no way to transport it home). And this was in the 90s, so that was insanely cheap, as tools have, if anything, gotten cheaper and prices paid with inflated dollars. The whole sale was a wet dream for anyone wanting to take up carpentry or work as a mechanic.

  18. I learned my lesson years ago with auto actions opened to the public. I could list half a dozen cars I thought I would get “cheap” – bid up past market price – by shills? Or just people losing their heads. Porsches, Jags….

    There is no $50 Porsche ;-)

    I found – as a rule – these cars were bit up past the market price. And I’m talking retail, not wholesale.

    My favorite was a 63 E-Type Jag roadster at a Federal “drug seizure” auction.

    This thing was beat – before E-Types really took off – they are maintenance intensive to begin with and this thing had a cheap red paint job, beat interior, but it was the desirable Series 1 with the 3 SU carbs.

    I figured with all the work this thing would need I bid $2500 – it went for $11,500 – in the mid 80s.


    I could give you half a dozen other cars that “got away”.

    Good advice on knowing the shills.

  19. I remember an auction of the office contents of a failed brokerage in Chicago in the ’90s. It was hyped in advance by the auctioneers, using newspaper ads. A friend of mine attended, hoping to buy some computers. He said prices were high and there was nothing worth buying — the used computers he had been interested in sold for more than they would have cost new at the time. You don’t need shills to get this kind of irrational behavior. All you need is a crowd with a few undisciplined bidders. It’s human nature and skilled auctioneers know how to exploit it. (It’s not much different from running an IPO in a bull market.) If you want to sell something, try to get as many people as possible to bid on it, for as long as possible. If you want to buy something, try to find a seller who is offering the item at a low fixed price, and try to get to the seller before other buyers do.

  20. Well, with auto stuff that’s a whole different arrangement. Those are not likely to be shills because auto wholesales are often attended by professional wholesalers who know exactly what they can get for a car, exactly how much money to put into it to get the amount back, and whether the car is worth it to them at all.

    You see, a lot of auto dealerships get their “high quality” used cars from these kinds of auto auctions. The wholesaler buys the car, cleans it up, then sells it to the auto dealer who then cleans it to their standards and marks it up again.

    They also get regularly attended by professional restorers — people who take those beat cars like your jag, put time and money into fixing them up, and then turn around and re-sell them to collectors at a decent profit, if they know what they are doing.

    It’s actually good to get to know one of the pros. I got a car through one that my 25-year mechanic recommended that was probably a good 2-3 grand cheaper than I would have gotten it from a dealer for, because I basically cut out the dealer (I likely would’ve gotten something equivalent for cheaper by going private sale, but it wasn’t really for me but for a friend, and that’s another ball of wax)

    BTW — as an aside — if you haven’t priced a used car in the last few years, count on sticker shock, as one might have guessed as an Unintended Consequence of the Cash-for-Clunkers program, the price of a used cars has gone up by about 50%. Most dealerships won’t use Edmunds or Kelly Blue book right now, but go off straight NADA book value, which is typically 1k-3k higher than either of the historically more common book values. At least that’s what I found.

    All the local dealerships pretty much silently laughed in my face when I expected them to come down from the NADA value they were citing, then turned around and attempted to offer me a car 3-4 years older with notably higher mileage for the same price as the Edmunds value for the car I was asking about. This was at about four dealerships and involved about 10 cars.

  21. Jonathan:

    Yes, you are correct, the kind of sale you’re talking about with a lot of random idiots in the crowd does exhibit the silly behavior you suggest, but that’s not the usual attendees of an estate sale.

    The same goes true for on-line auctions. At one point, you could actually get good deals via online auctions, but too many people don’t do the research on what something is worth — even when it’s a fraction of a second away on the internet. They’ll also put in auto-bidding software and wind up driving the price way up to at least the actual value of it because everyone is using auto-bid software and each one just jacks up the price instantly to the highest price anyone is willing to pay. The more sensible technique is to wait and see if it is going to go cheap, THEN place your bid towards the end of the process, as the sudden increase in price will often cause someone to drop out of bidding before they would if it went up gradually. It’ll also cause others to think, “do I really want to pay THAT for THIS?” which can cause them to not bid, also. About 10 years ago, when online auctions were fairly new, I got a few things at a good price. A couple months later, I tried again, and I realized I was wasting my time, too many idiots were involved in the process by then, jacking up the bids, often to far more than they had any business being for the equipment in question.

    Not sure how much the business retains of this flavor, but my GF had a lot of people who regularly attended his sales, because
    a) The knew he was honest
    b) They knew he never allowed any “reserve” price (minimum bid). Something went for what it went for — if you were the only person at the sale who wanted an item, you got it cheap.
    c) They knew he was good at putting things together in a way to get the most for the estate owner’s stuff, while still offering them the chance to get away with a good buy.

    For example, there was one couple who attended my GF’s sales for like 30 years, getting a lot of nice crystalware anytime something nice was going for cheap. Along came the time when he passed away, and she was too infirm to stay alone, so there was an estate sale for THEIR estate. We were going through their closets in setting up the sale and found stuff back behind the stuff that was behind the stuff in front that still had my GF’s old auction tags attached to them. That was one hell of a great sale for someone who wanted some nice crystal glassware, they probably had like 200-odd crystal bowls, vases, and various other pieces. And we’re talking NICE leaded glass crystal, not that cheap crap you get at most import shops nowadays that depends on people not knowing good crystal. Hint: the ring is a classic test, but just looking through the glass itself can tell you a heck of a lot. Good crystal is practically invisible except for the faceting — if you can see the glass itself (i.e., if it’s even slightly cloudy, or if there are visible schlieren in the glass), then it’s not good crystal.

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