Estate Executors’ Headaches: What to do with Upholstered Furniture

The padding used in antique chairs should be thrown away and replaced with new padding when re-upholstered.

Writer Amy Gale, in her book “Shows, Shops, & Auctions: Essays on the Antiques Trade,” recounts a tale of London surgeon Samuel Sharp, traveling in Italy in 1760. In the late 18th century, says Ms. Gale, the Italian countryside was a place of “hunger, lawlessness and filth.” Dr. Sharp would agree with her conclusion. On one night in particular, he so feared the uncleanliness of the proffered bed that he passed the night sleeping on a bench. Said Dr. Sharp of the bedding: “All the way to Naples we never once crept within the sheets, not daring to encounter the vermin and nastiness of those beds.”

As an estate auctioneer, I’ve never encountered anything quite as nasty as what Dr. Sharp describes, although on a couple of occasions I have chosen to burn mattresses in the yard rather than put them into my truck. The problems with the used upholstered furniture found in the typical estate sale can go way beyond popcorn and potato chips between the sofa cushions; upholstery fabrics and stuffing absorbs spilled beverages, food, body fluids, dander, cosmetics, hair spray, pet odors and urine. Much of this filth passes through the upholstery cover fabric into the stuffing and isn’t readily seen. Upholstery stuffing can also harbor mold, mites and diseases. Spinal meningitis is commonly transferred through shared mattresses and bedding. On the American frontier, European diseases were spread among Native Americans by the blankets traded by colonists. Clearly, selling used mattresses and upholstered furniture comes with certain risks.

For this reason, states have established laws to control the sale of used bedding and upholstered furniture. Most states allow the sale of used mattresses and upholstered furniture, but sometimes they require that items be disinfected and tagged with a declaration that the item is used and has been sterilized according to the state requirement.

Most states have very similar laws regarding the sale of used bedding and upholstery. My home state of Virginia has a 38-page document that outlines the particulars of its law, and a Bedding and Upholstered Furniture Inspection Office to administer the law. Typically, states define bedding as:

“… any mattress, mattress pad, box spring, upholstered bed, davenport, upholstered sofa bed, quilted pad, comforter, bolster, cushion, pillow, featherbed, sleeping bag, or any other bag, case or cover made of leather, textile, or other material which is stuffed or filled in whole or in part with concealed substance, which can be used by any human being for sleeping or reclining purposes.”

Individuals authorized by a court to liquidate an estate are usually exempt from these laws. The Virginia law states:

§32.1-225. Exemptions.

A. The provision of this article shall not apply to:

1. Any item of bedding or upholstered furniture sold under the order of any court, or pursuant to §55-419, any sale of a decedent’s estate or any sale by any individual of his household effects.

Being authorized to sell the items doesn’t relieve executors and resellers from the liability of selling diseased or vermin-ridden upholstery and bedding, though.

In most states, the legal restrictions apply to shops that buy and re-sell estate bedding items, such as quilts and pillows, and bedding manufacturers that might re-use bedding materials. In Virginia, the difference between selling bedding directly to consumers at an estate sale and buying bedding at an estate sale for re-sale in one’s antique shop is that an antique dealer isn’t re-selling under the authorization of the court as is an estate executor. But laws vary, so check your local statutes.

Stained mattresses should be thrown away.

What, then, are an executor’s options for disposing of bedding and upholstered furniture? There are three:

1. Take them to a landfill;
2. Give them away;
3. Clean them and sell them.

Taking mattresses to a landfill is a common solution. Because used mattresses are notoriously difficult to get rid of, landfills are brimming with them. Each year, about 40 million mattresses are dumped into landfills. Most estates require a clean-out after everything is sold so that a house is left broom-clean and ready to be sold. The best clean-out option I’ve found is to rent a dumpster and put all refuse, including mattresses, bedding and soiled upholstery into the dumpster. Let the dumpster company haul the bedding and other refuse to the dump. That way, executors won’t end up with lice or worse in their personal vehicle. “Sick-bed” bedding from a decedent should always be disposed of.

Giving away bedding is possible sometimes, but it’s not as easy to give away bedding as you might think. Goodwill and other charity shops no longer accept mattresses (in most states). Many estate sale operators and consignment shops that offer beds for sale offer the bedding “free for the taking” with the sale of the bed. If this tactic is used, executors, be sure that the bedding is clearly marked that it has not been disinfected and that the buyer assumes all risk and responsibility associated with accepting the bedding.

The “S” at the bottom of this tag indicates that it should be cleaned only with solvent-based cleaners, never water.

The third option is to clean and sell the upholstered items. This is a worthwhile option if the estate has a lot of high-end upholstered furniture and relatively new, expensive mattress sets. Paying to have second-rate or excessively worn furniture cleaned isn’t profitable for executors because upholstered furniture generally doesn’t bring very high prices. Often, the cost of cleaning exceeds the price received at a liquidation sale. 

Most cleaning companies will give you a discount if they clean all the furniture and saleable rugs in an estate (don’t let them clean the carpets until after the sale). After items have been cleaned, have the technician tag the items to indicate that they have been cleaned and sanitized. Then, add the cleaning fee to the price of the items.

When hiring an upholstery cleaning company, make sure that the operator who will be assigned to your job has been certified in upholstery cleaning. Some high-end upholstery fabrics—silk, for example—are very sensitive and using the wrong cleaner will ruin them. Too often, companies that advertise “carpet and upholstery cleaning” are primarily carpet cleaners, and using carpet cleaning chemicals on furniture and mattresses may ruin them. Certified upholstery cleaning technicians for both fabric and upholstery can be located through the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification website.

Handmade quilts are often made using recycled materials and should be dry-cleaned and sanitized before being sold.

If the bedding and upholstery to be sold are relatively new (less than a year old), and the decedent was healthy then thoroughly vacuuming and spot-cleaning the items may be sufficient to sell them without concern. Most new furniture will be marked with a cleaning code that indicates which cleaners can be safely used with each type of upholstery fabric. The tag showing the code is most commonly found on the decking fabric under the chair/sofa cushion or underneath the chair/sofa attached to the dust cover. A web page of the Michigan State University Extension lists the types of cleaners and cleaning procedures that can be used safely with each cleaning code. The cleaning codes and products that are appropriate for cleaning leather upholstery can be found here.

Fortunately, bedding such as that encountered by Dr. Sharp back in the 18th century is rarely found in modern estates. But, caution on the part of executors is always recommended when dealing with bedding and upholstered furniture.

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.

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