Would you have mistaken this for trash? This ticket stub to The Beatles February 1964 concert sold on eBay for $4,133.
There’s a very compelling reason why estate executors should enlist the help of an appraiser or auctioneer when sorting through an estate’s personal property: Executors often have no idea what’s collectible and what’s not.
A case in point:
I recently helped a neighbor sort through the contents of her brother’s estate. It was a typical middle-class estate: lots of household goods and a few collectibles on display. The neighbor had already spent a fair amount of time sorting and cleaning. On a dresser was a small bag of trash, and it was spilling over onto the dresser top.
As I opened the jewelry box on the dresser to inspect its contents, my gaze fell onto a ticket stub in the pile of trash. I recognized the ticket instantly, because for years I owned one. It was light blue-green in color, and featured the images of three of the four Beatles. I picked it up and confirmed that it was a ticket to The Beatles concert at the D.C., Stadium on Aug. 15, 1966.
Memories came flooding back. I attended that concert with several of my teenage friends. Following a few opening acts, The Beatles came out of the first-base dugout below me and the crowd erupted. They took to the stage near second-base, played about a dozen songs, and left as abruptly as they had arrived. At least, I think it was The Beatles: in the days before mega-sound systems and big-screen imaging they could neither be seen nor heard. But, the excitement of the moment was etched into my brain, and it re-appeared when I saw this ticket. Beatles fans collect these stubs because it helps them re-live the excitement of the era, and they’re willing to pay a premium for them.
A simple pencil; who would believe it sold for $55?
“Are you throwing this away?” I asked.
“Yeah, I don’t see the point of keeping it” she answered.
“What if I told you that this stub might be worth a few hundred dollars?”
“I’d say ‘show me the money’ because I don’t believe you”.
It took me less than a minute to pull up auction results for Beatles ticket stubs. The top 25 recent completed sales on eBay ranged from $4,100 to $250.
She was in shock. “Well, maybe I’d better have you empty that trash bag and see what else you can find.”
Yes, there were others things that looked like nothing but did hold value. Her brother’s collection of ticket stubs was small—just a dozen or so concerts and sporting events—and nothing of great historical value; just run-of the mill events that you or I might attend. But, the collection brought more than $900 at the sale. Not a huge sum, but it was money that she was prepared to throw away. She was smiling when she wrote the check for my fee.
Anything can be Collectible
The range of “what’s collectible” is beyond the experience of most executors. An Amazon book search using the term “collectibles” brings up 571,031 results, mostly price and connoisseurship guides. Appraisers spend their careers thumbing through such guides (or their online counterparts) becoming familiar with year-to-year price changes. The Association of Collecting Clubs lists more than 6,000 collecting clubs in America. And, the ACC isn’t the only collector’s club organization in the U.S. Some of the member clubs collect well-known items like stamps, militaria and comic books. Other clubs are built around collectors of unique variations of commonplace items: Pencils. Bricks. Poison bottles. Used lottery tickets. Rulers. Thermometers. The variety of items that people collect never ceases to amaze me, and not a month goes by that I don’t trip over a “new” collectible.
I can’t tell you how many times in my early years as an auctioneer I routinely rubber-banded a drawer full of pencils and tossed them into a box-lot of office supplies without giving the pencils a second thought. I don’t do that anymore. Now, I check any interesting finds against the website of the American Pencil Collecting Society (est. 1958). In March of 2013, a single black-and-yellow striped pencil sold on eBay for $55. Imagine opening a desk drawer and finding 10 of those. Would you think they were anything special? Most executors wouldn’t.
Executors would likely pass by an everyday item like this oil can, but it’s worth about $50 to a collector.
As an appraiser, I have learned to never take anything for granted. If a decedent has gone to the trouble of keeping something in a special place or has multiples of a category of items, they likely had value to him. If an item had value to a decedent, it might have value to someone else as well. Sometimes, the “big money” in an estate liquidation is found in places no one thinks to look.
Trash or Treasure
Most mistakes are made in the early stages of sorting through an estate when attempting to get rid of the trash. Finding “treasure” in an estate sale is a matter of being painfully thorough; picking up and inspecting everything (including what we believe to be trash). Most executors won’t do that, because the sight of a house full of possessions—and sometimes junk—is daunting. Executors generally don’t have time to be thorough; they have jobs, families and other commitments. It’s too easy to pick up a phone, order a dumpster and start tossing things. That’s a mistake.
In his book “Liquidating an Estate: How to Sell a Lifetime of Stuff, Make Some Cash, and Live to Tell About It,” estate sale specialist Martin Codina says: “Surprise treasures will look unassuming, common, or even ugly. Each one will look different and unique. They might be found in plain sight or extracted from deep within layers of what anybody else in their right mind would consider as pure junk…” Martin should know; he’s the Indiana Jones of estate sales. If there is treasure to be found in an estate, Martin will find it.
What’s an executor to do? Get help from an experienced professional. If not for the entire liquidation process, then at least for the sorting stage. Most estate sale specialists begin by triaging an estate. Fellow Worthologist and appraiser Harry Rinker discusses this method in his book “Sell, Keep, or Toss? How to Downsize a Home, Settle an Estate, and Appraise Personal Property.” Martin Codina uses a similar system, as do I (or rather did, before I retired). The system is fairly simple: on the first pass, pick up everything not designated for the heirs and decide whether to sell it, donate it or throw it away. A seasoned pro can prevent you from throwing away something that might have value (like a Beatles ticket stub). Then, on a second pass, the items designated to be sold can be examined more closely.
These Starbucks sugar packets might be missed by an executor, but since they are from Singapore, collectors would find them desirable.
Hardly a month goes by without the news media revealing another high-value item bought for pennies on the dollar at an estate sale and then sold at auction for thousands of dollars. In every one of these cases, someone sorting an estate—amateur or pro—missed something.
To close out an estate, executors will hire an attorney and an accountant and enlist the aid of a banker and a real estate agent. Why then, will so many executors attempt to sort and sell the contents of an estate without professional help? In most cases, the fee paid to an appraiser for an estate survey is a profitable investment. Executors, don’t short-change the estate you work for: hire an appraiser early and use them often.
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.
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