There are two types of appraisers: real estate and personal property. You might need both if you have a house to sell as well a houseful of Stuff. Look in the Yellow Pages under “Estates” or search the Internet, but try to get personal recommendations, admittedly difficult if you are from out of town. The funeral director or an upscale antique store should have a good recommendation or two. Check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure the name isn’t toxic. Personal property appraisers are not required to have any particular qualifications or education levels to conduct business, so you need to be careful about hiring “just anybody.” Some are nothing but auctioneers who hold up an item without knowing or caring what it is, as long as it sells fast. Ask if they specialize. Many reputable appraisers specialize in a particular area, say dolls or jewelry, and may be ill-equipped to recognize the pair of eighteenth-century Hogarth prints on the wall.
One indication of knowledge and integrity is the appraiser’s professional status. Ask if he or she is a member of the American Society of Appraisers or the Appraisers Association of America, or if he has the letters GPPA after his name (Graduate Personal Property Appraiser). Ask what their specialty is. Membership in these associations mean that the person has been in business several years, has taken a professional appraisals course, has learned how to write appraisals correctly, and has studied the ethics involved. You can use www.appraisers.org or www.appraisersassoc.org to find appraisers who are members of these two groups and search for those who specialize in either gems and jewelry or personal property. That said, there are exemplary appraisers who are not accredited, and I would not disqualify someone who was not accredited if they had solid recommendations. Contact a reputable auction house and ask for recommendations for the sort of appraisers you need.
People who appraise your Stuff should not buy it. That’s a clear conflict of interest.
The estate appraiser/auctioneer holds regular public auctions or on-site estate sales and will sell your Stuff for the highest price possible. He’ll take a commission, as little as 10% if you have several items that he knows he can flip quickly to a particular customer, or as much as 60% if you have consigned boxes of miscellaneous tools and junk that will take time and sell for only a dollar a piece. The percentage is negotiable and depends on things like how far a distance he has to haul your Stuff. The auctioneer also makes money on the other end, in the form of a “buyer’s premium” that amounts to 10-15% of the bid. He gets that money from the buyer.
Some appraisers will hold an on-site sale or auction if your location is convenient to a large customer base. Stuff often sells better in a residential setting. This is called an estate sale or tag sale and usually lasts a couple days. Everything is pre-priced, and the prices usually fall the second day. They’ll sell what they can to the public and haul the rest away. The tag sale will take several weeks to prepare: every item needs to be examined, priced, and carried into view, and the event needs to be advertised, but the heirs do not have to be present. In fact, it’s best if they are not, unless they are genuine customers intending to buy.
If you’ve inherited a house full of Stuff and you have no time to handle any of it yourself, you might consider using the services of an estate appraiser. Contact an estate appraiser before you’ve done any removals, and ask if they will meet you on site for a discussion of their fees and their recommendation. It will probably take an hour. They should not charge for this service, just like interviewing a lawyer about your case should not cost you. You are shopping for professional help and should interview at least two. After examining the house’s contents, the appraiser can tell you which of several options they recommend:
1. An estate sale on the site. If the location is convenient to lots of people and the estate includes some high quality Stuff worth a total of at least $10,000, this will probably be the way to go. Nice antiques, art, rugs, and handcrafts tend to sell better in the home than in a store.
2. If there are just a few exceptional items, they could move those to an antique shop or art gallery and sell on consignment. This takes time—many things will not sell for months, maybe years, but if you’re in no hurry for the money, it could work best. A typical cut for the store would be around 40-50%.
3. They might buy the contents of the house outright. Then you’re done with it. This means less money for you, but it’s over. Whew!!
4. Another option is an online estate auction where every item is tagged with a number and the house is open for a day or two for preview only. This is an inspection time where individuals and antiques dealers can breeze in, pen and paper in hand, and take note of any items they want to bid on. They go home, log onto the auctioneer’s website where every item is listed beside its picture, and bid for the things they want. After a few days, the top bidders are notified to pick up their property.
No one knows everything, and a good estate appraiser will have contacts with experts in many fields that she can call on for help when the estate contains Stuff like oriental rugs or antique silver or hand-carved decoys or leather-bound first editions. This ensures you get the most money for your Stuff. And since the appraiser is getting a percentage, it is to her advantage to get you the highest price.
Most auctions are “open” which means the items are going to be sold for whatever they bring. No “reserves.” A reserve is the floor below which the item will not sell. (As in, “I want to sell this table but not for less than $200.” In that case, $200 is the reserve.) In an estate sale, every single item is priced. Prices may be negotiable but not usually on the first day.
Today is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which aims to provide a safe and convenient way to dispose of unwanted prescription drugs–you know, like the ones in the bathroom cabinet and on the bedroom nightstand. These can be devilishly hard to get rid of properly. Prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs–even if unopened–can’t be returned or donated in most states. And the absolute worst thing you can do is flush them down the toilet or sink, which lets them into the water supply where they aren’t filtered out.
So, you’ve inherited a whole bunch of medicines–what next? Find a location near you that will take them back and destroy them responsibly by visiting www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov or call 1-800-882-9539. If you miss today’s event, don’t despair. Many of these sites take back drugs all year round, and besides, the DEA sponsors this event every six months.
You’ve inherited a house full of Stuff. It’s far away. Your job can’t spare you for long and you’re looking after your elderly mother-in-law. What to do?
Use an estate appraiser and auction off the bulk of the estate. Contact at least two estate appraisers (or estate liquidators or auctioneers) and have them come to the house to look over the estate and give you a quote on their services. These people can do a turnkey operation for you if you want it, although of course, you will pay for these services out of whatever proceeds result from the sale of the Stuff. They can pack, mail, or ship any items you want to keep, specifically those mentioned in the will. They can pick out the more valuable furnishings and take them away for sale at their next scheduled auction. Unless they have a special license, they may not be able to sell liquor and guns, but they will know who to contact for these. They can sort through the remainder, hauling the stacks of newspapers to the recycling center and the rolls of rusty chicken wire to the dump. They can sell boxes of kitchen tools and old books for a couple bucks or take them to Goodwill if you tell them that’s what you prefer. Or they can offer you a flat price, say $15,000 for the entire contents of the house, and what they auction off or throw out is left up to them. (And if you decide to contract with a nonprofit like Goodwill to dispose of the contents, you can use that quote of $15,000 as the credible value of the contents when you declare the donation on your income tax return.)
This option is the least desirable in terms of money for the heirs, but it may be the most desirable for heirs who are too old, too ill, too far away, or too busy to handle any of the work themselves.
What does “sports memorabilia” mean? Baseball cards, baseballs, basketballs, helmets, jerseys, photographs, newspaper clippings, bobbleheards, tickets, golf balls, mugs, caps, medals, pennants, any piece of equipment (baseballs, gloves, tickets, programs) that have been signed–you name it. If it relates to a sport, it may have value.
Serious collectors of sports memorabilia don’t buy anything unless it’s been authenticated—the market is flooded with fakes—so if you’ve inherited a baseball signed by Babe Ruth (probably not!), you’ll need to have it vetted by a credible service that does not buy or sell. Get recommendations through a reputable large auction house.
Sports cards of all sorts are easily sold online because they can be dropped in an envelope and mailed for the price of a stamp. E-bay is probably your best bet for this and other sports-related items that are not authenticated. If the item was collected by someone who authenticated them, or you choose to authenticate them, then they are probably best sold through regional auction houses.
Luggage is found in virtually every home or attic, and probably old luggage at that. “Vintage luggage” (or, really old luggage) is quite collectible. You may have seen examples (and fakes) being used as props in displays at retail stores and in themed restaurants, or pictured in decorating magazines where they are usually stacked and used as end tables. The better luggage is sturdy, heavy even when empty, made of thick leather (usually cowhide) with brass cap corners over wood or cardboard, with brass locks. Crocodile or alligator leather is the most desirable, but it’s rare. Don’t overlook brief cases and attaché cases.
Original initials, monograms, or even full names and addresses stamped or painted onto the case adds to a suitcase’s value. So do railway tickets, shipping labels, or steamship cruise line labels affixed to the piece. The most valuable to collectors are those made by Louis Vuitton, a French company that still makes expensive luggage after more than a hundred and fifty years. (It is said, however, that only 1% of all goods marked Louis Vuitton are genuine; the rest are Chinese fakes. But if yours were purchased by Grandma sixty years ago, they are not Chinese fakes.) Other luxury makers include Hermès (France), Moritz Madler (German), and Globe-Trotter (English), and the American companies Hartmann and Samsonite (particularly 1950s-era examples). Most of these should have maker’s marks to help you identify them. These marks are generally found on the edge of the suitcase, inside the edge, or applied on the inside to the fabric.
Check the locks too. Some, like Louis Vuitton, have their name and serial number on each lock. High quality locks are made of good metal, the highest quality would probably be silver; below that, brass, iron, and tin. Many were electroplated nickel over base metal, which, when it wears away, shows a brassy looking metal underneath. If the metal is rusty or pitted, the lock is a lower quality and so, no doubt, is the luggage.
There are also cheaper luggage pieces made with simulated leather. If they look nice, they may have some value as props. Sell these to an antiques dealer at one of the area’s better antiques stores, at an antiques mall, or to an interior decorator.
Used suitcases made of plastic or fabric are best donated to a service organization, but only if their condition warrants re-use. Otherwise let them take their last trip to the dump.
Wooden trunks can be sold to an antiques dealer. Those with rounded tops are useful at the foot of a bed for storage, but you’ll probably get a better price for the flat top styles, because they can double as end tables or coffee tables.
It should go without saying: thoroughly search all bags, trunks, hatboxes, satchels, briefcases, or other luggage before disposing of them.
Old American-made quilts can be very valuable. Even those in poor condition can sell for several hundred dollars, and quality antiques go for thousands. Don’t throw out a quilt that is dreadfully worn, torn, or frayed–even those can have value. They can be cut down to make a crib quilt or a wall hanging or cut up for decorative pillow covers.
Try to determine whether your patchwork quilt is machine or hand sewn. Gently pull at the seam of the patchwork pieces—irregular stitching indicates the top was pieced by hand (although a fine seamstress of the period could turn out stitches so perfect they might fool you into thinking they are machine sewn.) In all likelihood, the quilt is hand pieced. Even today, many quilters prefer to piece by hand, so that alone does not mean it pre-dates the sewing machine.
Next, look closely at the running stitch that connects the top layer, the batting, and the backing together. A very old quilt that pre-dates the sewing machine will of necessity be both hand pieced and hand quilted. The foot-powered treadle sewing machine, while it existed before the Civil War, was rare until after that conflict (1865). Electric sewing machines became popular in the early 1900s. Not until the 1980s did machine quilting become acceptable in quilt shows. Of course, not all quilts were made with the intention of entering them in the county fair. The utilitarian ones are apt to have been sewn as economically as possible, by machine. It is not realistic to think that you will be able to date your quilt, but this will let you describe it as “machine quilted” or “hand-pieced,” or whatever.
The “big three” historic quilt patterns are the Double Wedding Ring, Dresden Plate, and Grandmother’s Flower Garden. These were popular in the 1930s. You can find books in your public library on quilts that will help you identify the pattern and the date, information that will help you describe the quilt before you try to sell it.
In recent years, a flood of cheap, American-looking quilts made in China has been sold in department stores. These can be very attractive, but they have little resale value. If you think your quilt is old, American-made, and handmade, take it home with you to resell. It’s worth the trouble of dropping it in a box and mailing it home to yourself to deal with later.
Consider making an appointment with a textile curator at a museum that has quilts in its collection, likely the local historical society or a historic house museum. Tell the curator anything you know about the quilt: who owned it, where it came from, who made it, its age. If you know nothing about it, you can still help by saying where you got it. If it has a good local “provenance” or object history, the museum might be interested in having it. It is unlikely they will offer to buy it from you, since museums rarely have money to spend on acquisitions, but you can have it appraised. The curator or museum can give you names of reputable appraisers in your area, or you can go to the website of the American Quilter’s Society, www.americanquilter.com, for their list of certified appraisers—be aware of their hourly fee. Take the appropriate tax deduction the year you donate it. Museum curators never appraise objects. It’s against their ethical code.
If you prefer to sell, take it to a high-end antiques shop in your area and speak to the owner. The Internet is another option. Many quilts are sold on eBay.com or etsy.com. If you have a good picture and your quilt is appealing, it may bring a higher price there.
If your quilt is very dirty, or came out of a barn or garage, consider washing it carefully before selling it or using it on a bed. (See previous post on washing quilts.)
There is a decent market for fine old linen and cotton items, especially those with embroidery, cutwork, or lace. Handkerchiefs, doilies, dainty hand towels for guest use, lace curtains, christening gowns, smocking, and other fine children’s clothing are collected, loved, and used by those who appreciate workmanship that is largely a thing of the past. Even old dishtowels and aprons from the Fifties, like these on the right, are popular with some collectors.
Unless you know what to expect for such items, however, it will be hard to describe and sell them yourself online. An alternative might be the dealers at the better antique shows that come through town periodically. Some dealers have retail stores that can be located in the Yellow Pages or online. If one is near you, make an appointment to bring in your linen and cotton items and see what they offer. They will prefer—and pay more for—complete sets. For instance, a tablecloth with eight or twelve napkins will be desirable whereas the tablecloth alone may be refused.
. . . the op-ed New York Times piece (Feb. 16, 2014) by Olivia Judson titled “Home Dismantled?” It pertains directly to my book, STUFF AFTER DEATH. Many of us will empathize with Ms. Judson, who is overcome with problems trying to sift through the lifetime of belongings that her parents left in their house after their deaths. And she has it worse than many of us, because her parents seldom threw anything out. As a child, she remembered moving into the house in Baltimore, a house that “gradually filled up.. . . Every so often, my father would say, ‘We must have a yard sale,’ but the yard sale never happened.”
How unusual is this? Not at all.
Writes Ms. Judson, “I never agreed with the idea that personality is defined by objects; I would rather say that objects are defined by personality. Yet when someone is dead and belongings are all that is left, dispersing those belongings feels like an erasing of that person’s physical presence on the earth.” I understand completely. Many of you understand. It can be agonizing to dispose of a loved one’s accumulated belongings. But it has to be done. I wish I could have contacted this Olivia Judson person and offered her my book as a modest bit of help. It wouldn’t have solved all her problems. But it would have helped.