The Estate Sale

An estate sale is not IKEA, a maze of cheap in three colors. It's not West Elm or Crate and Barrel, assembly-line style you can call your own. An estate sale isn't Restoration Hardware or Ethan Allen, five-figure, eight-seater sofas for that room "we never go in." 

An estate sale shouldn't be confused with a garage sale where you pay someone to throw away the crap they can't fit in their trash can. And an estate sale isn't an antique marketplace, where simply adding "vintage" or "antique" to the price tag justifies an extra zero.

If you've made it this far, Kathryn assures me I've offended you, that I've likely mocked your new end table or mid-century bookshelf. Please accept my apology. We probably have that same bookshelf. And while my comments are meant to be lighthearted and mostly in jest, they lend credibility to the notion that affordable, distinct furnishings made to last are a thing of the past.

That's why I love the estate sale.

An estate sale is the sale of someone's belongings or those of a family, an estate. Reasons vary from divorce to bankruptcy, but most of the time the sale is in wake of a death. It may sound harsh by definition, but the benefits to everyone involved are substantial.

My parents recently held an estate sale after the passing of my grandmother. Apart from what they chose to keep, just about everything she owned sold in three days. The company hired to manage the sale made good money for their efforts. My parents were relieved of the burden to sell it all themselves or find room to store a lifetime of stuff. And the things my grandparents loved and lived with all those years have new life in the homes of happy strangers — happy strangers who got a fair deal on quality goods, that they too can love for a lifetime.

As a regular estate sale shopper, I can relate whole-heartedly to those happy strangers. Kathryn and I have been combing through estate sales for five years now and have come away with what we think are some pretty special pieces.

This glass coffee table with brass trim was tucked away in an upstairs bedroom and marked just $40! We later added the lower tier of glass for greater function.

If you can believe it, Kathryn was actually looking for a moon globe when she happened across this one at a sale. The brass whale we added to a small collection, and we can't decide if the propeller is cooler than it is heavy, or the other way around.

"We'll know it when we see it," we told each other for months while hunting a mirror for the powder room. And it happened just that way. 

From left to right — a back scratcher, a coat rack, and an old bird cage hanger I'm hoping to wire into a light.

This brown leather armchair came with a matching ottoman (not pictured) and a question as to whether or not the leather is real. If it is, we got a deal. If not, hard to say. We like it either way.

Perhaps Kathryn's most prized estate sale possession is this oil painting of a young woman named Wendy. We got her a new frame and she's currently awaiting permanent wall space. Next to Wendy is one of my favorites, a slick mid-century foot stool we snatched up for $15, which I'd have paid for the legs alone. We're considering new upholstery.

In addition to treasures, we've also collected some unique insights about people and their homes. Here are a few quirky, but general truths —

  1. A home is like a box of chocolates. Never knowing what you'll get is half the fun. Some people are organized, some live in disarray. Some have good taste, some odd. And some people just have too much shit stuff.
  2. Asian-inspired design is crazy popular, I had no idea. There's a name for it — Chinoiserie.
  3. Like a diamond, kitchenware is forever. Folks use the hell out of forks, knives, pots, pans, and drinking glasses, but never replace any of it. After a few decades they're eating dinner with what can only be described as scrap metal.
  4. People really deck the halls. I'm continually astounded by the amount of Christmas decor spilling out of closets. And attics. And garages. On more than one occassion we've seen entire rooms dedicated to The Fat Guy in the Sky.

By now I'm sure you're brimming with excitement to shop a sale. We know, it gets under your skin. But before you go, take note of a few tips from a couple of old pros —

  1. Estatesales.net is your good and best friend, bookmark it. Here you'll find nearly every upcoming or ongoing estate sale in your area, complete with descriptions and pictures of what's for sale. Use the pictures to get a rough idea of the estate but don't count on them to tell the whole story. Companies are charged (in part) by how many pictures they include with a listing, so often times they only post pictures of items they think will draw a crowd. There is usually way more to pick through than just what's shown online.
  2. If you really love something, buy it then, don't wait. There is always someone right behind you with their eye on your prize, especially on the first day. On the flip side, if you can't decide on something, wait until day two or three when prices drop. "50% Off" can get just about anyone off the fence.
  3. You can't see it all in one pass. Go through the house a couple of times, be methodical. I actually had to move a quilt off our glass coffee table (above) to get a good look at it, which is probably why it went unnoticed for so long.
  4. Don't be afraid of wear and tear. The good stuff has been around for a long time, which is precisely why it's the good stuff. Wear and tear is just part of the aging process. Look for solid pieces, good lines, classic designs. Elbow grease is free. Aesthetics are easy to change.

We brought home this Drexel 5-drawer dresser years ago, from one of the first sales I can remember. Kathryn made it over, made it ours. But under that coat of paint remains a solid, heavy piece of furniture, made to last another 50 years.

And that's why I love the estate sale.

Fenway Park, Right Field Roof Deck Box 33, Row A, Seat 3
Fenway Park, Grandstands

Top — Fujifilm X-Pro1  |  14mm  |  ISO 200  |  f/4  |  1/60  |  HDR 

Bottom — Fujifilm X-Pro1  |  14mm  |  ISO 400  |  f/2.8  |  1/150

Kathryn and I visited Boston this past weekend for work. Before we left town we caught a Red Sox game in historic Fenway Park. 

As visiting legend Derek Jeter stepped to the plate in the first inning, I bracketed a few photos of the park at sundown (top photo). At the time, I convinced myself I wouldn't need another image of Fenway, anticipating a hard-to-beat HDR result. And it is quite spectacular.

But later that night I lazily snapped a pair of pictures from the grandstands, and when editing the lot, one caught my eye (bottom photo).

I'm left thinking the bottom image is better — more artistic, less Fenway brochure.

Satisfaction is for the birds.

There are two kinds of people in this world — those that notice Stanley Steemer changes their jingle every other week, and those that don't.

orange butterfly on tree bark

Fujifilm X-Pro1  |  35mm  |  ISO 200  |  f/2.2  |  1/500

I think this is the sharpest photo I've ever taken, thanks in most part to available sunlight and a willing subject.

Cardinal eggs in nest

Fujifilm X-Pro1  |  35mm  |  ISO 400  |  f/2.8  |  1/15"

A bird made this stunningly intricate nest in a shrub just outside our window. A bird!

This particular bird we call Crimson, Kathryn named her. Just this morning, three baby Cardinals hatched, not yet named.

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