“The term ‘estate sale’ has been co-opted somewhat,” said Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman of Christie’s America, which recently organized an estate sale on behalf of the late Joan Rivers — where a dog bowl estimated to bring in $500 to $800 ended up fetching $13,750.
“When we take on an estate, it usually runs in the millions of dollars,” he said. In September, Christie’s will be auctioning off the contents of the Bel-Air home of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
But with more estate sales companies in the field willing to take on more humble estates, the market has opened up. The companies evaluate everything down to the last teaspoon, price each item, advertise the sale to an extensive network and run it within the home. Commissions usually run from 30% to 50%.
“We go in and make the house look like Macy’s,” said Simone Kelly, owner and founder of Grasons Estate Sale Services, based in Orange County. The company oversees 15 sales a week throughout Southern and Northern California.
Her sales bring in as many as 1,500 shoppers over a weekend, many of whom, she said, like “odds and ends they can fit in their hands.” Popular items at estate sales include Lladro figurines, linens, china, cutlery and kitchen appliances.
The evolution of the estate sale has benefited people who are trying to offload relatively inexpensive collections of items.
Earlier this year, Gloria Paternostro, 77, discovered that a friend had willed her the contents of her modest home.
“I don’t know if my friend realized what a nightmare this was for me at first,” said the retired ballroom dance instructor from Diamond Bar. “I didn’t know what to do with all her stuff.”
Paternostro initially considered donating everything but opted to hold an estate sale instead.
The first estate sale company she called told her that her friend’s belongings weren’t valuable enough. Another bailed at the last minute. Finally, she found one to sell the late woman’s rugs, art and other belongings in a February estate sale that netted her roughly $2,300 after the company took a 30% cut.
Lisa Kroese, owner of Expert Estates, which runs sales around Southern California, has worked at all points of the spectrum: She oversaw the sale for the estate of late actor Jack Palance and has done some that netted under $10,000.
“People think they don’t have an estate or that they should just donate or throw things away,” Kroese said. “Even in an average home, for people who don’t have antiques or art but are liquidating furniture, clothing, appliances, things in their garage, we can get them several thousand dollars.”
Troy Gregory, a broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Beverly Hills, said it was common for items to go for far more than expected at these sales. A client selling a Glendale home would have priced a collection of canes from around the world at $15. Instead, at an estate sale auction, they went for $20,000, making them the most valuable thing in the house.
“It’s smart to hire a company that’s trained to do these, because sometimes you don’t realize the value of something,” said Tami Pardee, chief executive of real estate brokerage Halton Pardee and Partners. Case in point: At one estate sale run by the owners, Pardee ended up buying a “costume” ring for $5 — it ended up being the owner’s mother’s diamond engagement ring.
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