An essay about what we take with us and what we don’t
Antiquing was my parents’ hobby, which suited my father, a voracious reader of history, and my mother, with her good eye for design. As they transitioned into retirement, a hobby turned into a small business, Great Finds Estate Sales.
Dad became certified as an appraiser, which led them into the world of tag sales in Greenville, Atlanta, Savannah, and the like. Their clients were a mixed bag of couples downsizing or getting divorced or children of someone who passed away, but one thing was constant no matter the estate: you could never guess what would sell right away and what wouldn’t.
I worked at some of the sales, either helping set up or at the checkout table, and though we watched the world transition into the digital age from pricing to methods of payment, many, many things remained exactly the same.
Finding Sentimental Value at a Tag Sale
Families are sentimental about strange things
You would think jewelry would be fought over, or sterling flatware or family portraits. No, often no one wanted these things, and they were succinctly priced for sale, but vehement argument would ensue over kitchen implements like Mom’s wooden spoon, a chipped pitcher, or a single Christmas ornament. When it comes to what we keep, it’s the memories of an item rather the thing itself, regardless of value. It was consistently something held often, maybe even daily, by people well-loved that was cherished.
Art is wholly undervalued
Everyone thinks their art is worth way more than what it could sell for; either it was overpriced to begin with, or it’s fallen out of style, or its framing is horrifically dated, and the list goes on. Dad had a catchphrase that signaled a work of art was not gonna sell for big bucks. “Did you enjoy having this in your home?” he’d ask. It was hard not to laugh when you heard the question posed and yet it shifted the focus to what is important about the home: living with things that bring you joy.
Air the family secrets
There’s nothing like an estate sale to unearth skeletons in the proverbial closet. My parents discovered all sorts of sordid stuff, from child pornography in an attic (leading to an FBI investigation) to unexpected documents like adoption papers. Oops. They even mistakenly threw away a cookie tin of cremated ashes left at the top of a pantry. Families are nuts, so spill all the stories while you’re around to offer context and appropriately share the evidence. Don’t leave the unexpected for strangers to discover.
It’s just stuff and sometimes it’s valuable
Tag sales are a sobering realization of the dollar value of household contents if liquidated all at once. But every now and then, the need to sell something intersects with a hot market for that very item and jackpot. My parents once unearthed a shabby desk in a mudroom that sold for $48,000; it was a promotional prize from Snow Soap back in the day. And there was a huge gaudy antique bed bought by a dealer, sold to a decorator, and placed in a celebrity’s home for about the price of a luxury car. Sometimes luck strikes and the story becomes as good as the payout.
I watched my parents dissolve estates large and small, but what I enjoyed most was seeing the cadre of obsessed shoppers that culled the tag sale ads, first in the newspaper and then later online. The groupies, as we called them, would stand in line, coffee in hand, before daybreak and later squeal with delight over a treasure procured. The hunt was as fun for them as any purchase, and it never got old to witness.
Thinking back, I believe my parents were always meant to have this second act in life. My childhood home was filled with collections, so when they got “in the business,” they fit right in. I recall visitors to our home asking my father the value of something perched on a table or hanging on the wall and he always gave the same answer: “It’s worth nothing because it’s not for sale. You can’t walk around your house counting dollars.”
It’s a value I carry with me to this day.