Raiders of the lost estate 

Like some strange suburban convoy, minivans and pickup trucks begin to clog the streets of an upscale Bloomfield Hills neighborhood before 8 a.m. on a Thursday. A sedan or SUV would seem out of place; these vehicles have been chosen for maximum cargo capacity, not status. Coffee, muffins and cigarettes in hand, the buyers eventually emerge, socializing and boasting when asked the oft-intoned question, “Find anything good last weekend?” When a half-dozen people have accumulated, one of them, a gregarious redhead, establishes a pecking order by scribbling numbers on torn sheets of notebook paper: first come, first in line. A half-hour before sale time, they encircle the house like sharks, climbing over bushes and peering into bedroom windows, trying to catch a glimpse inside. A few minutes before 10, they take their predetermined places at the door.

Inside the sprawling, midcentury home, Jean Watson glows with excitement. She and the staff of her estate-sale service, Jeantiques, have been preparing for this for weeks. “This house has a good feeling to it,” she says. Not all of them do. Some show years of neglect; some have that unmistakable, impossible-to-remove smell of mothballs and mildew; some simply don’t have anything worth selling. A bargain addict and antique dealer herself, Watson joined the ranks of metro Detroit sale organizers in the late ’90s, when her attorney father needed help liquidating an estate.

Since then, Watson’s been making good on her company’s credo of “taking it from thought to finish,” coming into mostly vacated houses and meticulously cleaning, organizing and pricing anything not marked to keep with a Post-it note by the owner. “With an estate sale, you’re selling someone’s life piece by piece,” she says. “There needs to be some dignity to it.”

Among the pieces prepared for this sale: folded linens, vintage evening wear, locked cases of jewelry, mulchers, canning jars, copies of Tinnitus Today magazine and partly used bottles of suntan lotion and Suave. Every item has a handwritten price sticker. A certified appraiser, Watson will spend hours researching the value of crystal, necklaces and curios; other items are priced more intuitively (a quarter the original price of a full bottle of mouthwash, for instance).

Her commission varies depending on the house. If it doesn’t have the potential to cover her staff’s expenses, Watson will politely give the owner tips on how to have a successful garage sale on his or her own. Sometimes her client is an person moving to a rest home, as is today’s; often, it’s the family of a deceased person, unable to put aside their grief to sort through a loved one’s life belongings. Watson feels she’s providing a much-needed service: “I hope in some way we’re helping these people,” she says. “It’s so stressful for them. They make mistakes. We try to take the stress away.”

Sale day is full of frenzied activity. The first ones through the door usually dart to the living room, where the most valuable items are kept. Clothing resellers usually make a beeline for the bedrooms; handymen go for the garage.

“Everybody has their little reasons,” says Karen Pladars, the redhead who took it upon herself to keep order among the buyers (a common practice when no sign-up sheet is provided). She feels estate-sale raiding is a much-needed opportunity for profit. “If the economy wasn’t the way it is now, I’d be at my engineering job instead of doing this,” she says bluntly. “There are no jobs.” Now she waits in her car, sometimes for days in advance, to scoop everyone else on the items that will go for big bucks online to buyers in New York, Los Angeles, even Europe. Her best-ever find: A rare headboard that cost $60 but is valued at more than $8,000. A Roseville resident, Pladars prefers sales in Oakland County or Ann Arbor to the ones in Grosse Pointe, which she claims are more cliquey and cutthroat.

Pladars and others are proof that the culture of the buyer is changing. Flea-market dealers and antique-store owners still show up to estate sales in full force, but more often the first responders are average folks: eBay opportunists who see the deals on Antiques Roadshow and want a piece of the action.

The flux in Internet activity has increased competition. “It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time,” Pladar says. “Because it’s opened up the eyes of so many people, it’s really killed the chances of ever finding the holy grail.”

Not all are after big-ticket items, however. Reseller Greg Dahlberg will turn a profit on the stuff that others might look past: hardback books, cassette tapes, Celine Dion DVDs. “People know their Carpenters, don’t ask me why,” he says, recalling a recent stack of albums he scooped up and promptly resold on amazon.com.

Even the estate sellers have caught on to Dahlberg’s schemes. He relates what happens when he purchases a stack of books for a few bucks: “People will say to me, ‘Are you actually going to read those, or are you going to go sell them on eBay?’”

Even the most determined profiteer occasionally comes across something so indescribable, it’d be impossible to part with. Clyde McCray lines up for the Jeantiques sale with an eye toward reselling any items he buys here at a garage sale of his own in Pontiac. He ends up snagging what is arguably the most coveted item in the house: a foot-tall, hand-sewn, brown leather pig, priced at $125.

“I’m keeping this one. It’s a keepsake. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I like it ’cause it’s got a curved tail. That’s the only way you can tell a good hog, by its tail.”

After the professional buyers have snatched up everything they deem worthy, the bargain-hunters begin to filter in. This is the crowd that sneaks in during lunch hour, picks up boxes of Minute Rice and unopened containers of Scope, and quietly exits. Few are willing to explain their rationale, or even give their names, such as the elderly gentleman with the mouthwash: “Sure, it’s a good deal. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be buying it!”

Tommy Dorr, owner of Royal Oak’s Lost & Found Vintage, stocks his store not with his own personal finds but with threads bought wholesale from a select group of used-clothing dealers. But for his own home, he can’t resist a good sale. His proudest find is hanging on his wall: An apocalyptic, 5-foot-by-3-foot amateur painting of a meteor about to destroy a large city.

“It was just a bunch of normal stuff, and then there’s this weird painting sitting out there,” Dorr recalls. “I mean, who would do that? Why would you paint a picture like that?” Posing the same question to the woman conducting the sale, he got his answer: “She said it was her ex-husband’s.”

Dearborn sale devotee Beth Sielicki found her fascination with estate sales extends beyond her affinity for vintage fashion. Her purchases are now more sentimental: forgotten letters, postcards, home movies, pictures of loved ones. It’s the sort of thing Watson calls “instant family”: buying remnants of someone’s history and making them keepsakes of your own. Sielicki sees it as more of an anthropological assignment. “It kind of gives you a clue as to who the person whose belongings you’re rifling through was,” she says. But the deeper she digs at any given estate sale, the more she begins to question the entire process.

“It’s kind of sad, that people have such little regard for their family member’s stuff that they would just turn it over to whoever,” she says. “Sometimes I just feel it’s my obligation to kind of rescue it.”

Michael Hastings is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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