Living With Antiques: Estate of Mind

If you know the secrets, estate sales can be great sources of hidden treasures and fabulous bargains.
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS

On any given weekend in New Orleans, there are signs dotting neutral grounds and intersections advertising estate sales. For many, these sales are like panning for gold in a gorgeous old home.

I love estate sales. Who wouldn’t? This is a city filled with architectural gems, antique furniture, attics packed with vintage clothing and lovely accessories for gracious living. Often, these events are held after the death of a loved one (a true estate sale) or for a couple who is downsizing or divorcing. The breadth and scope of items for sale is often dazzling.

There are several local companies specializing in such dealings, and each offers something different to sellers and buyers.

H & H Estate Sales is the grandmother of such businesses. Owned by two sisters, Mary Hazard Hines and Gail Hazard Bergin, H & H arranges around 10 high-end events a year. Their loyal following often lines up hours before the doors open. After hundreds of sales in the past 27 years, the two know the values of items and how to organize a sale that showcases the merchandise well. “Our goal has always been to make the most money for our client and still give the buyer a good deal on a fine piece,” Bergin says. H & H charges the homeowner a percentage of the sale, depending on the job.

Terry Adams-Luke of Antiques NOLA Auctions & Estate Sales has been in the estate sales business for 15 years and holds about two each month all over the Gulf South. Her business is one-stop shopping for the customer – she will organize and price the household, market the sale and arrange to clean the house and make it ready to sell. She also takes a percentage of the overall sales, which varies according to the services provided.

Likewise, The Occasional Wife, the newest estate sales business, will provide all services and even stage the house for real estate showings. Unlike the older companies, this group charges by the hour and prices each item to sell quickly. They limit their sales to one day. “We view estate sales as only one component of our business, and our goal is to sell everything as quickly as possible,” says Kay Morrison, co-owner and founder.

All of the estate sales pros say that the best estate sales have a wide variety of items, from pricey antiques to kitchenware. “High-end antiques, especially Louisiana-made pieces, go quickly,” says Adams-Luke. Good artwork goes fast, as well. But all agree that there’s often no rhyme or reason to what flies out the door.

“Sometimes the quirkier an item is, the quicker it sells,” says Morrison, who once sold a 1930s dowel-making machine. “It was big, heavy, ugly, and I have no idea what it did. But it sold.”

Each company has regular customers, who learn about the sales through newspaper ads (generally run the day or so before), e-mails (sent to databases ranging from a few hundred to 8,000), Facebook, Estatesales.com, Craigslist and yard signs.

In the past five years, estate sales have seen a change in what the buyer wants. “We are finding the economy has made buyers more cautious and disciplined than five years ago,” Hines says.

So what’s in it for the buyers? Estate sale prices are generally lower than antique stores and consignment shops. But there’s a caveat: The best pieces go quickly, so there’s little time to think about the purchase. Once the sale is made, there’s no return on the item, so be sure that large armoire
or enfilade will fit the space before you write the check.

Estate sales are often a wonderland of vintage and antique collectibles – gently used linens, china, rugs and silver. Costume jewelry and Mardi Gras favors and pins are also popular. My favorites are cast-iron pots that have been cooked on and nurtured for decades and fine bone china dessert plates.

All company owners advise that buyers arrive early if interested in a specific piece. Bring a tape measurer for furniture and a jeweler’s loupe for the bling.

Cameras, notebooks with specific dimensions and even friends for a second opinion are recommended. Some local collectors of silver and gold bring a scale to weigh the metals. Get on various companies’ e-mail lists so you can be first in line for the next sale.

 In the case of H & H’s two-day sales, don’t be shy about putting in a written bid on an item if you think it should go for less than the asking price. “Just be sure that your bid is at least 50 percent of the price on the tag,” Hines says.

 Finally, have a plan on how to get the furniture home, as none of the companies provide moving services.

Often when visiting an estate sale, I feel a little sad, knowing that someone has died or a marriage has failed and strangers are rummaging through the house looking for treasures. But those in the business of estate sales see it differently.

“This is a nation of people who have too much stuff,” Morrison says. “We’re in the business of helping families let go. I think of an estate sale as giving items a second life. Each piece in a home tells the story of someone’s big, beautiful life. Now it’s someone else’s turn to enjoy these things.”