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An undated handout photo of a German silver tea and coffee service.

Stair Galleries,

How to dispose of your parents' treasures

  • Article by: TERRY PRISTIN
  • New York Times
  • December 31, 2013 - 1:23 PM

A few months after my mother died in 2011 at 93, I put her apartment on the market and was lucky enough to have a deal within days. The buyers were paying cash and seemed certain to be approved by the co-op board.

But then I faced the real challenge: disposing of six rooms’ worth of furniture and hundreds of decorative plates, crystal bowls and other knickknacks my parents had accumulated during a 61-year marriage.

A friend who is an art historian and consults on provenance and estate sales helped me consign the truly valuable items (a couple of French paintings and some elaborate jewelry I could never imagine wearing) to Christie’s. She also knew an auctioneer in the Hudson Valley who was interested in silver candelabra and a few other items, and someone else with a gallery in Manhattan who arrived with a wad of bills and paid me on the spot for some silver-plated serving utensils and candlesticks.

But what do with everything else?

In the end, I spent a lot more time unloading the contents of the apartment than I did selling the apartment itself. And there were moments when the job seemed overwhelming.

My experience, it turns out, was not unusual. “You’re lucky if the contents are worth one-tenth of the value of the apartment,” said Nick Thorn, vice president of Litchfield County Auctions in Litchfield, Conn. “But people get so stressed about this stuff.”

Anxiety, it seems, is an inevitable part of the process. Even if there are no conflicts with siblings about what to do with family belongings, disposing of those things can feel like discarding your history, especially while grieving. That table where you used to have family dinners can feel nearly impossible to part with.

In dismantling her parents’ apartment, Patricia Crown, 66, was determined to find an appropriate home for all their possessions, even the things an auction house would not sell. “I knew that what my mother would have wanted was that every single thing she owned benefit somebody,” said Crown, an entertainment lawyer. “That turned out to be my biggest problem.”

Those of us who have been through the process have learned — sometimes the hard way — that there are several ways to alleviate the stress.

Get multiple bids

Consider asking your estate lawyer or real estate broker to recommend an intermediary to act as an adviser — someone who knows what sells, where the market is and which auction houses are reputable. This adviser, who may also be able to negotiate with auction houses for a break on commissions and fees, does not have to be an appraiser.

Jamie Wolf, a writer who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., had just three weeks to get her parents’ home in Stamford, Conn., ready for a closing. Among their possessions was a Tiffany lamp appraised at $15,000 by two auction houses. But Wolf, 67, was also working with Constance Lowenthal, the friend who helped me, and Lowenthal suggested taking it to Lillian Nassau, a shop in Midtown Manhattan that specializes in the work of Tiffany and his studio. To Wolf’s astonishment, the store bought the lamp for $75,000.

As she discovered, it’s a good idea to get more than one bid. Even the most experienced auctioneer can sometimes slip, and although the Internet has made auctions accessible to buyers around the world, each auction house has its own customer base. Just don’t overdo it, said Michael Millea, co-owner of Millea Brothers, an auction house in Boonton, N.J.

“You can’t go crazy and call seven people,” Millea said. “But by calling a few people, you’re giving yourself the best chances.”

Some auction houses, like Millea, will also do what they call the “cleanout”: removing everything from the house or apartment, even unsalable items. Others will refer you to a company that specializes in this.

The Tiffany lamp illustrates another important lesson: Look for labels. As anyone who watches “Antiques Roadshow” knows, brands sell. My parents’ dining set, for example, was made by a Midwestern company called Romweber, something that increased its appeal, I was happy to learn.

Unfortunately, though, many people no longer have dining rooms, so in general, the market for dining sets is terrible, said Howard Zellman, a partner at the A.N. Abell Auction Co. in Los Angeles. “We beg people to give them away.”

Adjust expectations

English and early American antiques, which are known as “brown wood furniture” in the industry and were once highly prized, are not as sought after as they used to be, either. So although there are exceptions, be prepared for disappointment.

Changing tastes also affected the market for my mother’s prized gold-rimmed Rosenthal dishes. (Too impractical.) The same thing holds true for silver: Most place settings, unless they are from Georg Jensen or Buccellati, will be melted down for their metal value. And crystal goblets that are not from Baccarat are scarcely worth the cost of packing up. Wolf had several sets of Steuben glassware in the original boxes, but they sold for a couple of hundred dollars, far less than she expected.

With the exception of Steinways, most pianos are not very marketable, either. Nor are books, unless they are signed first editions in excellent condition.

But there may be pleasant surprises, as Leslie Mason, a Manhattan real estate broker, learned. “We had some Russian samovars that didn’t appeal to me at all, and they turned out to be valuable,” said Mason, 52, who used Litchfield County Auctions to sell her parents’ belongings.

In my case, I was surprised to discover that a small carved Chinese agate censer was worth considerably more than the other souvenirs it was displayed with in my mother’s foyer, thanks to the insight of Colin Stair, owner of Stair Galleries in Hudson, N.Y. It sold for $700. (If you have a collection of a particular kind of object that you think is valuable but may not sell well at a general auction, you should consult someone who specializes in that area.)

Many auctioneers prefer to get an estate while it is still intact, and they will give people a better deal on commissions and fees to ensure that. Sometimes that strategy can pay off in other ways as well.

One New York City couple who inherited several pieces by Paul Evans, including one particularly striking handmade console, planned to sell their star piece separately at an uptown auction house. But Roland Antiques of Manhattan persuaded the couple not to break up the estate, an arrangement that benefited both parties, said Cynthia Pappas, a consultant at the auction house who also advises private clients. The console not only fetched the $30,000 price the couple hoped for, Pappas said, but “several lesser pieces of Paul Evans furniture received more attention than they would have had the star piece not been at that auction.”

As for me, once my parents’ best stuff was gone, I had to decide between auctioning the remainder at Roland for an estimated hammer price of $9,000 to $12,000, or accepting a check from Millea for $8,100. I took the check. Millea carted away everything but the 50-year-old living room sofa, which would not fit into the elevator and had to be chopped into pieces by building employees.

I wasn’t there to watch it happen.





 

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