Estate Sales

The Next Family

By: Tanya Ward Goodman

Planning to re-decorate?  Looking for the perfect stockpot?  Need a love seat or a side table or a place to stash your magazines? Forget Ikea, take a pass on those fine and fancy things at DWR and hit an estate sale.  If your love is mid-century, you can find original 1950s sofas.  Looking for Asian antiques?  They’re out there.  A brass lamp shaped like a fish?   It’ll probably turn up.  The estate sale is not only one of the most eco-friendly ways to furnish your home; it’s also great fun.

I love touring open houses and antique stores and so it’s funny that it’s taken me so long to come around to estate sales.   At an estate sale you not only get to walk through some pretty amazing houses, you get to rummage through drawers, garages and cupboards, too.  The secrets that are tidied up for the Sunday open house are all on view at the estate sale.

An estate sale is different from a garage sale in that it encompasses the entire contents of a house.  That means you’ll find paperback books for twenty-five cents next to original oil paintings priced at five hundred dollars and up.  It means that you can find impersonal things like drapes and muffin tins along with the most intimate of souvenirs.  Recently, I was at a sale in Arcadia where it seemed that everything in the house had been purchased at a department store.  It was all very nice, but it didn’t tell me that much about the people who had lived there.  In a bin in the kitchen, I found a little jar filled with seashells, a tin box crammed with rubber bands and a pile of cookbooks.  Each of these things helped outline a delicate shape of the former owners.

Some owners leave a deeper impression.  At a sale in the valley, I found a lot of what I have to call “sled dog art.”  There must have been two hundred pieces in a collection that would have made Jack London proud.  Shelves were crowded with paintings, drawings and statuary all depicting huskies trudging through the snow.  It was amazingly specific.  Though I didn’t buy anything at this particular sale, I took this detail home with me.  Perhaps one day it will show up in a novel or a short story.  Perhaps mention in this article is enough.

For a writer, an estate sale is fertile territory indeed.  I find wonderful objects but also snippets of conversation or the sudden movement of a buyer to a true “find,” all of these, potential sparks to story. Collectors hunch over I-phones looking up the value of this piece or that, neighbors grab all the boxes of holiday decorations from the garage and often, one soft soul or another mourns over a pile of family photographs or a box of slides.

For me, it is impossible to skirt the fact that an estate sale is about an end.  Often it’s death, divorce or foreclosure that releases these things back into the world.  What I find heartening is that what had meaning to one person can have a different kind of meaning to someone else.  The accumulation of a life can be spread out over dozens of other lives.

I am not a dealer, I don’t have a really good idea of “value,” but I know what I like.  I look for things that speak to me, that seem to belong with me.  I always have a few categories I’m looking to fill: side tables, garden statues, dining room chairs, but I leave myself open because some of the best things I’ve brought home I didn’t even know I was looking for.


If you want to take a trip to an estate sale, consider signing up for email notification with some local estate sale companies.  Hughes Estate Sales and are two good listings.  These sites will give you advance warning of sales in your area and they often post photos of items available.

Most sales start early.  The most serious buyers are there even earlier, so plan accordingly.  At a recent sale in Pasadena, there was a line to get in.  On the second or third day of a sale, discounts are often given, though there often isn’t much left.

If there are price tags on items, it is customary to “pull the tag,” to claim it.  Though I have seen people darting through a sale pulling tags willy-nilly and then returning them later after they’ve taken a breath and decided what they really want, this doesn’t seem very sportsmanlike.

Be sure to find out if the sale is cash only.  Many dealers will take credit cards, but it’s good to be certain.

Bring your own box or bag for “smalls.”   Tiny items are tricky to lug around while you browse.

Enjoy recycling, reusing and refurbishing!

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