Estate Sales: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A couple of weekends ago I had the good fortune to stumble upon an antiques-laden estate sale in Pacific Palisades. While I’ve grown rather jaded with estate sales as of late, this one I think saved me from writing the whole endeavor off all together. 

The Good: This estate sale was an example of a ‘true’ estate sale. For one thing the sale took place at a recently deceased person’s home. For an estate sale to be an estate sale, at least in my opinion, the owner of the estate must have passed away. (For a list of my other estate sale pre-requisites, see the list below.) All the contents of the house were for sale, meaning the estate sale facilitator didn’t remove and consign all objects of value to an auction house, leaving only the worthless leftovers at the residence. And it just so happened that whomever lived at this particular residence was a collector and had wonderfully eclectic, notably sophisticated although often kitschy (in a good way!) taste. The sale was organized so as to make price inquiries and the exchange of money as effortless as possible but wasn’t so overly organized so as to make you feel as if your every move was being glared at.

In the end I came out with wonderful (and wonderfully priced) mid-century steel sculptures by Mexican artist Miguel Felguerez, a circa 1930s California pottery wall plaque with a “deco-ish” cat, and a couple of great mid-sized drawings by Bay Area artist Lorraine Crawford. This was a good sale.

And now for the bad. You see, it appears word has gotten around that garage sales sound far more enticing when labeled ‘estate sales.’ So needless to say, I’ve grown weary of burning fuel during the early hours of a perfectly good Saturday morning searching for Craigslist ‘estate sales’ only to find parched front yards strewn with bobble-head toys, ratty Lakers posters, and circa-1990 Christmas ornaments. This particular letdown can usually be avoided by examining the posted photos. If the photos you see appear to show clutter, bric-a-brac and an assortment of objects – this is good. If, however, the poster has included two photos, one of an Ikea dresser and the other of a metallic laundry basket, stay away; unless of course you are interested in purchasing an Ikea dresser and/or a laundry basket. Also, if the poster specifies a “by appointment” ‘estate sale’, run.  At best you’ll enter a 28 year old’s pathetic studio apartment where you’ll purchase his “The Mask” dvd for $2 out of pity and at worst you’ll end up in the aforementioned basket. In my opinion, steer clear.

And now for the ugly. It seems that some sketchy (read: evil) dealers and interior designers have taken note of estate sale’s popularity and are now creating high-priced weekend interior design showrooms under the guise of ‘estate sales’. Some of these people will actually rent out a vacant home in some ritzy neighborhood and fill it with assorted decorative pieces. They will ask retail prices for these objects, and will often ask for more. These types of set-ups are a bit hard to detect but here are a few pointers. If an online posting is too good to be true, it probably is. Posting titles to avoid will generally read… ” Fabulous estate sale in the Hollywood Hills! Estate of a noted Hollywood producer with impeccable taste.” Bleh. Also, if you happen to show up to one of these sales (hey, it happens) you can usually tell something is fishy if the interior is freshly painted and the residence looks unlived in. All good estate sales should contain the requisite layer of dust. There should be soap in the soap dish, maybe even cans in the cupboard. The doormat should look as if people actually cleaned their shoes on its surface. The place should not look like an interior designer’s showroom.

Good luck navigating all those estate sales. It can be difficult to avoid all the misleading and downright fake sales out there but all it takes is one genuine article to make it all worth it. Here is a list of some of my idiosyncratic estate sale requisites, as well as things to take note of when looking at online estate sale postings. Hopefully they’ll make your journey more efficient and more enjoyable:

1. All legitimate estate sales will allow potential purchasers to look through the entire residence (or most of it), and not solely in the garage, or front yard.

2. If the items seem overpriced, you’ve probably stumbled upon a weekend antiques/interior design showroom pretending to be an estate sale, or you’ve encountered a seller who doesn’t really want to part with his or her items.

3. An estate sale residence should look lived in. There should be signs of normal wear and tear. A little dust is always good. Be very weary of overly clean places. These places are usually not the genuine article, or have been stripped of anything of value.

4. Be wary of estate sales held in apartment buildings. Most are simply tenants looking to sell their belongings before a move.

5. Be wary of estate sales conducted ‘by appointment’ only.

6. Take note of the photos posted. Do they show a residence which shows signs of having been lived in for a while? Is there an interesting assortment of items from what you can see? If yes, chances are this will be a good sale, and a true estate sale.

7. Has the poster created a list of every item for sale? Not good. Probably not an authentic estate sale. Most likely an apartment sale (see #4 above).

8. Avoid postings that show up every weekend. These posters are relentless junk peddlers. Nobody wants their garbage and yet they feel the need to constantly hawk their useless trash, weekend after weekend after weekend.

9. Avoid postings with lists (see #7) that include a price and the accompanying “FIRM”. These people are merely trying to get rid of their junk and nobody wants it because the price is too high, or the item is junk, or both. Bargaining at an estate sale will always be welcomed by sale facilitator.

10. Avoid postings with the following, or similar titles: “Multi-Family Estate Sale”; “Neighborhood Estate Sale”; “Estate/Yard Sale” ; “Discounted Estate Sale”

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3 responses to “Estate Sales: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. All excellent points, Dave. I fully agree. While Salt Lake City likely has more authetic estate sales than LA, it is still a gamble every time. I always find the authetic ones quite depressing though..sifting through someones life…now my big question to a more experienced dealer than myself- where do you find your buyers for such goodies???

    • Hi Christa,

      Yes, there is a tinge of melancholy present while going through someone’s belongings. I guess it helps knowing that the items the previous owner cherished will hopefully find new homes with equally appreciative owners. As for the estate sales, you know, I call it “ugly” but let’s face it… it works, or at least here it works, or seems to. With your interior design know-how perhaps you might get involved in something along those lines…? Maybe you could be more upfront and call it what it is – a discount, weekend interior designer’s sale? I won’t think any less of you, promise! As for buyers, you know, I usually start with eBay – you can make excellent contacts that way; particularly buyers of very specific, pricier works. Once you have a sale and the buyer knows you are legitimate, you can always cut out the middleman (eBay + Paypal), which helps you, and cut out other potential bidders (which helps the buyer). This hapenned recently with a buyer of a painting by a Pacific NW modernist artist. Post sale you can ask them if they are interested in any other items, and if so to make a list for you, so that when you are out and about (estate sales, antique stores, auctions, etc) you can keep an eye out for them. I’ve also been selling at an outdoor antiques market, but the results as of late have been mixed (read: lousy). But there are so many factors that go into this so I wouldn’t write off the endeavor entirely. Perhaps it’s worth a try in Salt Lake City?

  2. Thanks for your comprehensive response Dave. I have toyed with the idea of a “designer” sale- but would NEVER call it an estate sale. I will have to give it a go sometime soon. I have not devled into ebay yet, as it seems like such as vast, endless market. Etsy has not come to much for me yet, however I am very green in the dealer realm. Thanks for the tips and love your blog posts…looking forward to some more.

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