Digging through decades of a family estate – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I spent the holidays combing through family papers and heirlooms in my family’s home in Minneapolis. My siblings and I were cleaning out the home we grew up in, a house that has been in the family for more than 70 years. Among the items I had to deal with was my childhood coin collection. I loved the books that held the Buffalo nickels, the Lady Liberty dime, the gorgeous silver Lady Liberty Dollars, and the Indian Head Pennies. I never had an impressive or valuable collection, but I used to enjoy sorting through the coins and looking at the often-hard-to-read dates. But I didn’t want to transport the coins back to my home in Washington, DC – nickels, dimes, and quarters are heavy! So I brought them to a rare coin dealer I found on the Web to see if any had value and whether I could sell them back.

I sat down with one of the experts, who looked through the coins and told me that none of them was terribly valuable, but the older ones did have some silver content. Silver prices have soared in recent months for reasons I don’t fully understand. My expert was taking notes, keeping numbers on what I had. I figured, given that the coins were not themselves valuable, I’d get $20-30 for the collection. Next thing I know he’s sending me upstairs to the bank with a check for $328! That is how much the silver in the older coins was worth.  I was astonished and delighted at getting this unexpected windfall. I must admit, however, that I feel a little sad that I no longer can look through those beautiful Buffalo nickels.

My siblings and I are holding an estate sale at the home in Minneapolis. I didn’t realize how useful these events are – not just for those who are looking for furniture and other items at bargain prices, but for the family. After more than 70 years in the house, our family collection of furniture and clothing is overwhelming. I had tried in recent visits to dispose of my mother’s designer bags, hats, and dresses and my father’s drawers of Brooks Brother’s shirts and bookcases of hardcover books. We did donate many of my mother’s designer dresses to the University of Minnesota’s school of fashion and design, but the other possessions are just too numerous.

And the problem with the vintage clothing or used book stores is they give you a pittance when you bring them in individually – $2 or an item or for a whole box of books, when you bring them in individually – yet they will turn around and sell them (particularly vintage clothes), for a lot of money. The advantage of an estate sale is that the folks running it will price the items much higher and the vintage/used book/antique stores will pay a much fairer price. The estate sale company then keeps 25 percent of the gross and the family gets the rest, minus the cost of advertising the sale. It’s a win/win for both buyers and families.

One caveat, however: as with all consumer services, you have to do your homework and use care in choosing the estate sale company. Find one that comes well recommended and will carefully cull through your family belongings, ferreting out first edition books or money found in pockets of coats and turn these items over to you. Then they come in, spend five or so days marking items and setting them out for display, and hold the sale, often both days of a weekend. The stuff that doesn’t go the first day gets discounted.

For families, it’s a manageable way to discard the decades of belongings that pile up and offers estate sale shoppers an affordable alternative to lamps, rugs, and furniture.