I collapse in bed on the verge of a coma after day one of my two-day estate sale. The sale was to clear out the home of my parents, who have moved on to assisted living.
That the coma did not come was an ambiguous blessing, because in its place furniture dreams tormented me. In them, I see rooms of my parents’ old furniture, dealers laughing (mwahaha) and rubbing their hands greedily, as my parents are saying aghast, “You sold that for what?”
All that day and the next, when faced with selling my parents’ antiques and finer furniture, I was caught in the crosshairs, stuck at the intersection of clearing the house in a few days so we could fix it up to sell, and honoring the value of my parents’ treasured belongings.
The house is buzzing with buyers who know a lot more about what we’re doing here than I do.
In a panic, I’d emailed an antiques appraiser from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. (I had an in.) I sent photos of the antiques I was most unsure about for guidance on what they should sell for.
While I waited to hear, I fretted about losing cash buyers to my ambivalence, and so cut some very uninformed deals based on best guestimates and a dollop of prayer.
The morning after the sale, and another night of angst-filled furniture dreams, I hear from Gary Sullivan, one of Antiques Roadshow’s featured appraisers who specializes in high-end antiques. As we talk, I chomp through a family-size bottle of Tums.
Because I like to be in control of my own humiliation, I didn’t immediately tell Sullivan I no longer had some of the items he’d appraised. I waited until after his verdicts:
1. The Seth Thomas clock hailed from Dad’s side of the family. A sticker on the back dates it to 1883. The clock used to sound off every 15 minutes. One day that stopped, and we were all grateful. Over the years we lost the winding key, or maybe someone buried it. Sentimental value (on a 1-5 scale, 5 being most dear): 2.
Sullivan said: An antique clock expert, Sullivan knows the Seth Thomas line well. In the late 1800s, the maker was churning them out by the bushel. “It’s not worth much because though it’s old, it’s just too common.”
What happened: I checked eBay and found dozens of similar clocks that had sold for between $56 and $150. Knowing that a clock shop would have to replace the key and clean the clock to get it running, I sold Uncle Ben to a boutique store owner for $60. “You sold for exactly the right price,” he said. “In fact, you maybe got the better end of that deal.”
2. An ancient-looking set of two gold-leafed caned chairs and a table were among several furniture pieces my parents bought in France when we lived there in the 1960s. The three pieces sat in our entry, usually alongside the family dog. When a dealer offered $100 for the set, I had to walk outside to cry. Then I collected myself: What would I do with it? It’s rickety and would cost a fortune to ship to Florida, where it wouldn’t fit in my home. I returned with a thicker skin, a stiffer lip and a counter offer. Sentimental value 3.5.
Sullivan said: The antique pieces were made in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and were copies of period chairs from an older time. The fact that one of the seats was re-caned (by Dad) diminishes the value. The set would sell at an auction house for a couple hundred dollars. An auction house would keep a percentage.
What happened: I sold the set for $140, I tell Sullivan. “That was a nice buy for the dealer,” he said.
3. The cedar chest once sat at the foot of my grandmother’s bed, Dad told me. Grandma had nine children, and somehow kept tabs on each one, including Dad, who was sixth in the lineup, and probably needed watching. When he came home from a night out, he checked in with Grandma, and often talked while sitting on this chest. The chest maker’s name “Forest Park” is stamped inside the lid. Sentimental value 4.
Sullivan said: “These chests were 20th Century phenomenons. The company made them by the thousands. You’re never going to find one that has any value as an antique. It’s a $40 piece of furniture.” I should have “no regrets” selling it for near that.
What happened: I weighed the low market value, shipping costs and the fact that I have three chests at home, and called a dealer who was interested. He bought it for $50.
4. The two hand-cast brass lamps were beautiful, and my family thought possibly valuable. Some dealers thought the lamps were antiques made from kerosene lamps. I had tagged them “Not for Sale,” but took offers and phone numbers from interested shoppers.
Sullivan said: “They are not early lamps.” Before 1900, lamps didn’t come in pairs. These were made as electric lamps in the 1920s to 1940s to look as if kerosene lamps had been turned into electric lamps. I told him I had an offer for $175 for the pair. He said to take it. “Their value is not based on antiquity.”
What happened: I called the buyer who had offered $175, but he flaked. I then called a dealer who had the next highest offer, and sold the pair for $150.
5. A French side table, also from France, is perhaps the piece I’m fondest of not only because it was once my nightstand, but also because I love its Frenchness. The piece has curved, carved legs, a marble top and a marble-lined cabinet (to hold the chamber pot, I was told — eew). I had no idea if the piece was worth $100 or $1100 today. I did know that if I lived within driving distance, and not 3,000 miles away, I’d take it home. Sentimental value 5.
Sullivan said: The piece was made in the late 19th or early 20th Century, in the Louis XV style. The bit about the chamber pot isn’t so. It was lined with marble to be a humidor for tobacco. The item would sell at auction for about $200. A retail store would sell it for $350 to $400.
What happened: Despite buyer interest, I did not sell this at the estate sale either. But after talking to Sullivan, and forcing myself to be practical, I called one interested dealer and offered it for $200 firm. He agreed, but the morning he was to come get it, he changed his mind. I think he expected me to lower my price, but I didn’t. I’m just not ready to let go.
Join me next week as I share what I decided to keep, and why.