Estate sales have fans and maybe ghosts
“The best estates are somebody’s maiden aunt who never married and lived to be 99.” Rene Nevils, employee and sister-in-law of Noelle Lanier
After three decades holding estate sales, Noelle Lanier says she is sure she believes in ghosts.
She’s never seen one, but there is a presence she feels.
“People who live in houses for 50 to 60 years and lovingly put their hands on everything, if you don’t think there’s a huge aura in the house ...” she said, then paused and looked across the living room of her latest estate sale project.
“If you walk in, you feel these people. I’m not saying doo-doo-doo-doo,” she said, mimicking the “Twilight Zone” theme song. “It’s not that. I can feel them. It’s just that they’re here.”
Lanier, 65, stands 4 feet, 9 inches and speaks in rapid bursts with a smooth drawl. She had spent a month preparing the sprawling mid-century home on Berkshire Avenue in Baton Rouge for a sale. The day before, she scurried from room to room, adding the finishing touches.
Unoccupied for 12 years after the owner’s death, the house appeared lived-in and comfortable — yet everything in the house was for sale. Each room had been arranged so shoppers could easily visualize what the chairs, lamps or silver would look like in their own homes.
“We set it up like they just took a break,” Lanier said of the houses. “We try to make it as if (customers) were walking in and people just stepped out.”
Everything in the entire, sprawling house — thousands of items — had been researched. Pieces of jewelry had short descriptions posted beside them that detailed the designer’s history. Women’s hats had been displayed with a neatly typed quote: “Three things a woman can make out of nothing: a hat, a hairstyle and salad.”
In the month it takes to prepare a house for a sale, Lanier researches the value of everything in the house before coming to work in the morning, said sister-in-law and employee Rene Nevils.
“I do believe she thinks that there are 30 hours in every day,” Nevils said.
Estate sale agents will take on a house full of items that need to be sold after a bankruptcy, divorce or a death. The agents will prepare the items and sell them, taking a percentage of the money earned.
Estate sales have gone on for decades, but they seem to have become more popular in the past decade, said Dan McQuade, founder and owner of http://www.EstateSales.net, a directory of estate sales across the country. The Internet, he said, makes them more accessible to shoppers who sign up for email lists from estate sale companies or search online for sales where they can see the items before the sale begins.
“It used to just be people like myself who were buying for their own collections or to resell,” McQuade said by phone from Jackson, Mo. “But now it’s people who are buying to save money.”
When the sale starts on Friday morning, Lanier’s dedicated shoppers line up outside. They receive email newsletters from her about every sale and show up early. Lanier passes out playing cards to the first 50 so she can let them in the door intermittently, and she places a certain amount of the home’s items in the garage, where they can start shopping right away.
“Just to allay the natives, to keep them from getting restless,” she said.
She wore an old-fashioned black hat with a pink flower and a brim that swept across her face — a purchase she felt she had to make from the collection. As shoppers begin to peruse, Lanier walked from room to room, always the saleswoman.
She reclined on a modern, early 1960s bed Friday morning and dramatically acted out a woman’s need for the folding make-up compartments built into the headboard.
A Staffordshire figurine of Robin Hood and Little John from the 1870s had a small nick in the top.
“These types of things add cachet to the piece,” she said. “I wish they could say that about people when you get old.”
Lanier started the estate sale business 27 years ago with a partner. In those days they cleaned the house and organized the sale. She doesn’t do the cleaning anymore.
After several jobs in middle management and owning two of her own small businesses, she started buying cheap antiques, restoring them and selling them for a profit. Then she learned about estate sales.
This type of sale has grown in popularity over the past two decades as a way for deal-seekers to find bargains — and as a way for families to liquidate their loved ones’ possessions.
On Friday morning, Pat Worsham, a customer who frequents estate sales, found a stack of napkins once used to keep biscuits warm and claimed them quickly.
“You find treasures people didn’t know were treasures,” she said.
Bridget Kaufman and her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Kaufman, drove in from Covington for the sale.
“I feel like you don’t find things like this at furniture stores,” said Elizabeth Kaufman, who was looking at a set of chairs that looked like they were made from kegs or barrels for her husband’s “man cave.”
The sale on Berkshire Avenue was a good one, Lanier said. The homeowners took care of their things. Great sales are those from people who never had pets or children.
“The best estates are somebody’s maiden aunt who never married and lived to be 99,” Nevils said.
Lanier’s best advice for any family putting their deceased loved ones’ possessions into an estate sale: Don’t throw anything away.
“Leave that to our discretion. You lose objectivity in a house your parents lived in,” she said. “A grandparent may have picked it up for 25 cents and now it’s worth $25.”
Estate sales often last three days, starting on a Friday and ending on a Sunday. On the second day, Saturday, at the Berkshire Avenue house, Lanier was walking briskly marking down items for a “second day price.”
With a red pen raised in her hand, Lanier broke the quiet murmur of shoppers to announce, “Red pen walking!”
Lanier said she believes that the sales should always be fun, like an “adult circus,” not just a doleful garage sale where you purchase the possessions of the deceased.
“We don’t want them to think it’s sad,” she said.