After a long, acquisitive life, your great Aunt Mabel passes away. As closest relative, you inherit the house and everything in it. What do you do with a lifetime of stuff?
You could give it to charity. Or if you have bills to pay (some of them inherited from great Aunt Mabel) you could sell it. The Queen Anne bureau, so proudly displayed in the parlor, is worth a bundle. But what about everything else? All the garden tools, clothes, great Uncle Marvin’s collection of World War I memorabilia, silverware, dishes … How much do you ask for a set of Howdy Doody drinking glasses?
If you know what you’re doing, you ask a lot. Serious collectors will pay $15 apiece for those glasses.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, you hire someone who does.
Susan Gardner knows what she’s doing.
When she made the leap from insurance sales and stock brokering to estate sales nine years ago, Gardner knew what antiques were worth, coming from a family of East Coast antique dealers. Now, after shepherding her company Susan Gardner Estate Sales into position as one of the most visible in Sonoma County, she also knows the kind of work it takes to stage one of these weekend whirlwinds.
This week, for instance, to prepare for a two-day sale in Oakmont, she and a helper had to move a garage full of furniture back into an empty house and, in essence, redecorate. The estate’s heirs had moved everything into the garage when they put the house up for sale.
“Actually that’s one of the parts of the job I enjoy the most,” Gardner says, pushing a stubborn lock of hair out of her face while navigating a chair through a doorway. “If I hadn’t gone into this kind of work, I’d probably be doing something in interior decorating.”
After everything’s artfully in its place, it has to be priced.
“That’s one of the areas where experience really pays off,” Gardner says. “Knowing what all that chachka stuff is worth at a given time that’s where somebody like me comes in. I know the trends and I know what s hot and what’s not. For instance, depression glass, which used to be a big deal, is not hot anymore. Garden furniture is hot. And those Howdy Doody glasses … the heirs in that sale were thinking they were worth maybe 25 cents each. How are they supposed to know they’re worth $15?
“That’s what I’m here for,” Gardner says.
There are two basic options available to people faced with disposing of an estate: You can give it away or you can sell it.
If you decide to sell as most non-independently-wealthy people do, Gardner says there are four ways to liquidate an estate.
“You can sell the whole estate to one buyer, which is probably the quickest and easiest but possibly not the best from an economic standpoint.
“You can hire an auction company and sell it all that way, but that usually requires more work up front and the return is less predictable.
“The family can do it themselves but there’s almost always a problem confusing sentiment with value when you try to price things.
“Or,” Gardner concludes, “You can hire somebody like me.”
The people who opted for choice No. 4 sing Gardner’s praises.
“It is overwhelming what she puts on her shoulders with each one of these sales,” says Susan Simon, a former client and frequent buyer at Gardner’s sales.
“When you see one of these things from the Inside, you will be very impressed by how she handles things,” says Simon, who hired Gardner to sell her mother’s estate. “She’s a compassionate, take-charge person. It was very rewarding working with her,”
Gardner, who hails from a family of entrepreneurs, is the kind of person who does things full tilt. She even relaxes energetically.
Because most of her business Is generated by some monumental change to a family’s life such as death, illness or divorce, Gardner has learned to deal with strong emotions; her clients’ and her own.
“For the most part, people are pleased to have me there,” Gardner says. “The heirs often just don’t want to deal with all the memories. Occasionally, you run into some anger. That’s a stage lots of people go through in the grieving process. You just have to ride it through.”
“I did one estate,” Gardner says shaking her head remembering one civic leader’s extensive acquisitions. “It was a job and a half. That man never threw anything away.”
Gardner manages two or three sales a month. They range from small $4,000 events featuring Tupperware and waffle irons to the $75,000 events featuring Georgian silver and French armoires.
Gardner’s revenues have gradually grown each year as her reputation spreads. “I’m not getting rich in this business,” Gardner says with a laugh, “but I am having fun.”
Gardner has a firm policy of not buying and reselling anything from her sales.
“I regard that as a major conflict of interest,” Gardner says. “I don’t see how anybody who does estate sales could also be an antique dealer. Some people do it, but I just don’t.”
“There’s almost always a problem confusing sentiment with value.” –