Sharon Fiffer’s Four Estate Sale Stages for Owners

Linda’s and my next door neighbor in Kentwood, Mich., Dave Jekel, sold his home and is moving to Arizona to live with his son and family. Rather than take his household possessions, he has decided to sell them. Dave first asked his children what they wanted. Like so many, he was surprised by how small the list was. Dave’s mission—and he has no choice but to accept it (apologies to Mission Impossible) —is to sell the contents of his house.

I assumed Dave would schedule an auction. Prior to moving to western Michigan, I lived in communities where auctioneers are kings-of-the-hill. I have many friends in the business and a high regard for this method of dispersal. I mistakenly assumed auction was the preferred dispersal practice in western Michigan. It is not.

I knew better, but momentarily forgot. During the 10 years I operated my Institute for the Study of Antiques and Collectibles, several attendees came from Michigan. They offered a package of client services that included appraisals, estate sale management and antiques mall booths. Gary L. Miller and K. M. Scotty Mitchell, good friends and owners of Mitchell in Fort Worth, Texas, are estate sale wizards. I have seen them in action and listened to their “how-to” lectures.

Since my primary antiques and collectibles buying sources are flea markets, malls, shows and online, I felt no urgency to investigate the estate dispersal scene following my arrival in western Michigan. I am in the process of correcting this. There are eight auctioneers listed in the yellow pages of the local phone book. While I do not know the preferred day for auction and estate sale advertisements in the Grand Rapids Free Press now, I will within the week.

Aware of my expertise, Dave invited me to “take a look at a few things” before signing a contract with the person who will conduct his estate sale. The number of antiques and collectibles were limited. The contents were contemporary, high-quality furniture and decorative accessories, great fodder for an estate sale.

Two of my favorite estate sale managers are fictional characters: Sharon Fiffer’s Jane Wheel and Tim Lowry. Jane, a garage/estate sale picker and amateur sleuth/private eye, is the central character in the “Jane Wheel Mystery” series, published by Minotaur Books. In reading “Backstage Stuff,” the most recent title (published in 2010), I put the following passage into my “food for thought” folder for future Rinker on Collectibles columns:

“When Margie walked through the house after Jane and Tim effectively turned it inside out and began hanging string tags on the valuables, taping signs to the walls for group pricing of linens or men’s ties, Jane and Tim both knew she would go through the owner’s four stages of dealing with their own estate sale—denial, embarrassment, anger and greed. In other words:

“No one is going to want to buy that.”

“I wouldn’t want anyone to see that.”

“Why wouldn’t someone want that?”

“We should have charged more!’”

Although I thought a great deal about how individuals view their personal property, I have written very little about it. My writing focuses on how individuals view inherited objects or objects bought for collecting purposes.

My observations suggest that individuals see little value in the things with which they live. Objects purchased for utilitarian purpose are functional, meant to be used and then discarded. When purchasing contemporary furniture, household and decorative goods, clothing and other things, little to no thought is given to long-term collectability or resale. Who collects lawn mowers, refrigerators, outdoor grills, New Balance athletic shoes, Champion workout shorts, garden store vases or plastic storage bins? We live in a use-it-then-lose-it environment.

We also fail to value our possessions because they are used. We are a new-minded generation. New is preferred over used. Buy new rather than repair. The hand-me-down era quietly faded from the scene in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Who wants to buy that used thing? I most certainly would not.

We forget that every antique and collectible was once new. Collectors in 2050 will be buying our ordinary and everyday objects. Not everything. Some discrimination, hopefully based on aesthetics and good taste, will prevail.

I have lived long enough to see objects from my childhood become antiques and those from my children’s childhood become collectibles that are approaching antique status. Even though most of my grandchildren are younger than 14, a granddaughter from a previous marriage is in her mid-20s. The toys from her childhood are collectibles.

While there are meticulous individuals who pride themselves on maintaining their possessions in like-new condition, the average individual uses the items he/she owns and accepts the wear and tear that results. Selling one’s household contents in an estate sale exposes a person’s stewardship qualities to the general public. Little wonder there is a period of initial embarrassment and concern. People want public perception to be positive. The seller was a good housekeeper, had good taste and lived in a model home.

During the course of living with their possessions, individuals do not think in terms of resale value. However, when facing the sale, they slowly experience a change of heart. The process follows an identifiable pattern.

Initially, when deciding what will be offered in the estate sale versus what will be sent to the landfill, the owner makes decisions weighted more heavily toward the dump than the cash box. Pings and dinks, even the smallest of blemishes, become magnified. Pleas by estate sale managers to “not throw that out, someone will buy it” are ignored at first—only at first.

Eventually, the maxim “hearing is believing” prevails. Once the owner accepts the estate sale manager’s message that a potential buyer exists for all possessions, he/she becomes a believer. The seller sees his possession in a new light. Value is everywhere. If he/she had only realized this possibility earlier, he/she would have taken better care of the objects.

Those in the trade from auctioneers to antiques dealers to estate sale managers know that the concepts of “why wouldn’t someone want that” and “there is a buyer for every object” are myths. There is not a buyer for everything. There is usually a pile of unsold goods at every estate auction. Box-lot buyers often leave unwanted items in the box behind. No antiques dealer leaves a show with an empty booth. Estate sale managers always have a “what to do with what is left” plan in place.

In talking with Dave about his estate sale, he told me that the estate sale manager prefers he not be present when the estate sale takes place. I reinforced this advice. “You are too close to the objects,” I told him. “The only thing to care about is the final number. You made the decision that you no longer had any use for these things. Let the estate sale manager do her job—sell your stuff.”

When confronted by a seller, whether private individual or antiques dealer, who laments “I should have charged more,” I make two points: First, the object sold. Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious. Once an object sells, it is no longer the seller’s problem. The seller has the cash. The buyer has the object and now faces the “what am I going to do with it” issue. Second, if the object had been priced higher, it might not have sold.

Money is money. For the seller, cash in hand is better than object in hand. The goal is to sell. Maximizing return is a secondary goal. If an object does not sell, neither goal is achieved.

A great deal of second-guessing occurs in the antiques and collectibles industry. Second guessers live in the past. The antiques and collectibles business is a better place when it focuses on the future.

Although I considered offering Dave my services to vet the prices the estate sale manager put on his items, I refrained. My second guessing, especially since I had not checked out the western Michigan estate sale market, would contribute little.

Curiosity mandates my attendance at Dave’s estate sale—for professional reasons, of course. As for Linda, I still am trying to figure out away to distract her. Any suggestions? We do not need another thing.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site..

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site..

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

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