Selling the stuff of a murdered family
  • A real estate sale of public housing
  • Night lights and estate sales
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    Auction Finds

    The pain of selling a relative’s estate

    The woman watched as the auctioneer directed bidders to a burgundy leather recliner on the porch of the man’s home. We were standing in the living room and a few of us glanced toward the window and the wall, none venturing outside in the cold to see the chair.

    She was a cousin of the deceased man, a bachelor whose basement, she had told me earlier, was stuffed with items bequeathed to him by his women friends. Most of his possessions were now loaded on tables in his garage and driveway, set up on the ground outside or still in the house much as he had left them.

    She had bought the recliner for him as he had grown older. She had purchased it from a neighbor during a house clean-out and had gotten someone to help her lug it down to his porch.

    A woman had bought this recliner for an aged cousin whose possessions were sold in an estate sale. It went for half of what she had paid for it.

    The auctioneer called out a high bid on the recliner, and only got silence. Then, as usual, he dropped the bid and dropped it again until it was so low that someone finally accepted it. Others stepped in and the chair sold for $50. “I paid $100 for that chair,” the woman said incredulously.

    Then she watched as paintings – which had been removed from the walls  – went for as low as $5. “I’m going outside,” she said. “It’s too much for me.”

    I thought she was leaving because she was disappointed in the prices. Talking to her later, she explained that it was difficult to see her cousin’s possessions being sold. “It got to be too much for me,” she repeated, holding back tears.

    An auction-house staffer arranges items on a table in the garage during an estate sale.

    She had come to the auction with another cousin, who had traveled from Texas to be available to answer questions or make decisions about the sale of the house and its contents. Their male cousin had died in August.

    I always wondered if it was a good idea for close relatives to attend an estate sale in the same house where the deceased had lived. If you’re very close to someone – as these cousins seemed to be – it had to be particularly painful. You’re walking in the places where they once walked, sitting on a sofa or at a table where you once sat with them, and seeing this personal space without them in it.

    I’ve been at several auctions where family members have looked over the possessions with the same eye as bidders. Some came to buy, and the executor of the estate normally told them that they would be re-imbursed. Because family members were in earshot of bidders who sometimes could be irreverent, the auctioneers reminded buyers to be respectful.

    Souvenir guitars from the estate sale for Paulie Teardrop.

    At an estate sale last year at the home of Paulie Teardrop, relatives were buying some of his possessions, and at least one appeared to be especially distraught. Every time anyone mentioned his name, she cried, my auction buddy Janet observed.

    Family members also remove things from auction that may have been overlooked before. That happened at another auction where I saw a lovely metal thread holder on a wall. When I went back for a second look, it had disappeared. I later saw a woman carrying it and figured it was a family member who wanted it for herself.

    Relatives can also be distracting. At another auction, a man stood around in a room full of his brother’s vintage cameras and nixed any bid that he found too low. It must have been his first auction because no one goes to an estate auction to pay full price. So, it’s a good idea for family members to know that, and to decide when and where to sell what from an estate.

    Floor and table model vintage radios were in a bedroom in the house.

    Several of the cameras were removed and sold in a special in-house and internet sale a few months later at the auction house. Two Hasselbads sold for much more than they would have at the man’s house – $625 and $825.

    Part of the brother’s distress may have come from his loss. At the more recent auction, it was clear that the cousins felt deeply about their cousin. They seemed to have known him, his house and his belongings quite well.

    At the top of the stairs was a Queen of Sheba piece that they used to make up stories about, they said. They saw on an auction flyer that it had been placed in an upcoming Decorative Arts sale – where it would bring a higher price. They wondered what had happened to a painting that had hung next to the door, and finally saw it on the floor up against a wall.

    A Queen of Sheba piece from an estate was set to be sold in a Decorative Arts sale at the auction house.

    They said their cousin had been an engineer and entrepreneur who once owned a night club in New Jersey. He had worked at Philco – there were Philco manuals for sale in the garage – and had visited Rome.

    He collected Lenox animals: porcelain mountain lions, elephants, rams and panda bears were in a cabinet in the living room. He had even kept the boxes they came in.

    A painting by Haitian artist L. Merelus that I got at an estate sale.

    As I was leaving, the cousin who had bought the recliner asked if I had gotten what I wanted. I did, including a watercolor by a Haitian artist named L. Merelus. I had Googled the name and found a Lusimond Merelus, whose watercolor “Ballroom Dancing” sold at Christie’s in 1991. He apparently also did illustrations for a photography book on Haiti in 1953. I’ll add it to the other Haitian paintings I got at auction in January.

    I’m glad, the woman said of my purchase of her cousin’s artwork.

     

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