Critical to the sale's success, of course, is whether she's gotten the pricing right low enough to tempt bargain lovers while getting as close as possible to the fair market value. To research prices of items she's unsure of, Sassounian says, she photographs them and does research on sites like eBay and Google. Because so few liquidators have formal appraisal training, critics question their ability to accurately price the dizzying number of items and to understand the subtleties of how quality, condition and rarity come into play.
"I'd be careful of the person who claims to know the value of everything," says New York art attorney Amy Goldrich. "Most of the time they can have no idea if it's a fake or a copy, especially if they're doing a quick Web search."
For her part, Sassounian says she brings in outside experts whenever she runs across an unfamiliar item. Still, Ulemek wishes the prices had been higher. "I can't believe she sold my brother's wonderful stuff for pennies," she says, adding that she'd have liked to have been on-site during the sale to press for higher prices.
For Sassounian and her peers, that frequently spells trouble, since as they tell it, clients will sometimes put the kibosh on a sale either because they're bogged down in the emotional value ("I've seen people hug toasters because they can remember making toast in the morning," says Hall, the Charlotte liquidator) or they can't imagine that their treasures have depreciated at all from the original retail price. ("I always tell them to take a zero off what they bought it for," says Sassounian.)
Ultimately, Ulemek's brother's belongings brought in upward of $50,000, even with the modest pricing. "And when all was said and done," Ulemek admits, brightening, "the house was nice and clean."
But a clean path to life's next phase can also start at an auction house. More than $20 billion worth of household items, art, antiques and collectibles sold in a competitive-bid environment in 2008 alone, the most recent year the National Auctioneers Association polled its members.
On a chilly Monday morning, the staff at one Philadelphia-area firm, Dutch Auction Sales, is hard at work, dispersing the contents of hundreds of households, more or less en masse. And for those with stars in their eyes about the auction market for middle-market furniture and household goods, a trip to Dutch, which caters largely to the wholesale crowd, offers a bracing reality check. Indeed, some of what's offered here is stuff that didn't sell in estate sales, and the occasionally shocking prices ($10 for a hefty antique oak round table in perfectly fine condition) show how the great American sell-off is hurting prices for boomers everywhere.
"Onedollah, onedollah, onedollah," the auctioneer intones. "Sold for . . . one dollar," he says of the decent-looking seven-piece patio set. Forget the image of a Sotheby's swell with French cuffs and an accent to match. This auction impresario sports a bushy handlebar mustache, scruffy jeans and an unzipped hoodie. He carries a liter bottle of Pepsi in one hand and a wireless mic in the other as he moves briskly with a cluster of buyers across a football-field-size area covered with rows and rows of household castoffs: boxed lots of tools, fat 10-year-old TVs and computer monitors, vintage yearbooks, old plastic rocking horses.
The bidders, mostly flea marketeers and eBay resellers, know exactly when to let a whole row of junk pass at $5 and when to pay up for treasures like a newish wine fridge ($17), 1960s-era Bose speakers ($80) or a (presumably working) snowblower ($160).
Every two weeks, Dutch processes more than 7,000 items in a marathon that starts at sunup and lasts often into the wee hours, operating in and around a hangar-size warehouse. With relentlessly paced three-ring auction action, it processes a steady stream of items culled largely from middle-class homes: antique furniture piled three or four high; tabletop lots of toys, china, silver and books; and those junkier lots outside.
No white-glove treatment here: Porters drag heavy wood antiques roughly along the concrete, and more than a few times during the day, glass can be heard crashing to the ground. Dealers park their U-Hauls in a tight row alongside the outside dock, quickly loading antiques that, on average, says Dutch CEO Bob Selmon, are running 50% below 2005 prices. (Rugs, he says, are down even more.)
According to Rich Holleny, an antiques dealer from Maryland's Eastern Shore, one elegant mahogany dining set that gavels for $400 would have fetched between $1,000 and $1,200 five years ago. A carved-oak Victorian fainting couch worthy of a Betty Draper swoon goes for $85. Back at his shop, Holleny laments, traditional furniture is languishing, and even at these prices, it's harder to make margins. "A lot of people have been driven from the business," Selmon says.
While auctions themselves are coping with a surfeit of sellers and cash-strapped buyers, driving down both prices and sell-through rates, they're still big-time liquidation players. But the liquidation universe, which has many tiers, can be confusing for downsizers looking for the best outlet for a fine or unusual estate item. Sellers may assume the holy grail is a high-end auction house like Sotheby's or Christie's, which rarely take on consignments worth less than $5,000, but experts say the best choice comes down to who can drum up the most serious bidders. Niche outfits, for example, reach targeted collector markets, whether for antique duck decoys (Guyette & Schmidt in Maryland), midcentury-modern furniture (Wright in Chicago) or art pottery (Rago's in New Jersey).
Of course, for boomers who don't have the stomach to see the stuff of their lives sold off and aren't driven by a financial imperative to do so, there's always the option of just passing on to the great beyond and letting the heirs duke it out. Billy Campsey, an Amarillo, Texas, accountant who often acts as a fiduciary on disputed estates, says he recently experienced it all firsthand when his aunt left $150,000 worth of jewels to be split among six family members who all wanted the same pieces.
"Put all six of them in a room and they'd have a fistfight," he says. After hearing from an estate lawyer about a Web-based tool called eDivvyup, he persuaded the heirs to try the closed online auction system (think eBay, only private) that lets an estate executor post photos and information about each piece and assign point shares to heirs based on his or her percentage of the estate.
In the end, he says, competitive bidding worked a lot better and faster than gambling on a retail consignment. Not only did it squash the squabbling, Campsey says, but it took one year of administration off the total estate.
If there was ever a good time for a wealthy aunt to die, 2010 was it -- from a tax perspective, that is. With the estate-tax exemption at $3.5 million in 2009, 34,000 U.S. estates paid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service that year, a decrease from 108,000 in 2001. Although the tax was zero in 2010, it returns this year, at a rate of 35% for estates over $5 million.
Making distributions before death can help lower the tax hit and eliminate a lot of disputes, says Kathleen Sherby, a St. Louis tax attorney and fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. The problem, she says, is that "a lot of people just don't want to deal with it."
When Tom Tuchmann's father died last summer, who got what was not a big issue. After all, he and his siblings had long since feathered their own nests, and their dad's stuff was, he says, pretty worn out. (They each took a few sentimental items.) The harder part, says the Portland, Ore., forestry engineer, was having to process the reality that the Winnetka, Ill., home his dad had lived in for 50 years, a reassuring time capsule of their childhood, would no longer be there.
But while his brother waxed nostalgic about the old ceramic rabbit cookie jar and his well-played 45 of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," Tuchmann hadn't looked closely at the contents of his childhood home in 32 years and felt little compunction to start, he says. "Now that it's done, I'm moving on."
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