Estate Sale Leftovers Become Another Person’s Treasures

Last week’s post, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” addressed the challenges of dividing personal effects among the heirs and concluded that in a Will, there’s no “small stuff.” Even mixing bowls and fishing poles can become precious family heirlooms. However, after all the precious items have been claimed by one heir or another, what becomes of the leftovers? Solution: An estate sale.

Don’t jump to the conclusion that estate sales are a bunch of junk. Indeed, stories abound how one man’s “junk” becomes another man’s “treasure.” Such are the revelations from Janelle Stone in “The Opulent World of the Estate-Sale Queen of Dallas” (Rachel Monroe, The New Yorker, Nov. 4, 2022). For Janelle Stone’s estate sales, people have been known to camp out for four days to be first in line. “Her sales typically last two days, during which she might sell more than a million dollars’ worth of antiques, vintage couture, and tchotchkes.”

Stone admonishes that there are no more “garage sales.” She describes her work as “treasure hunting.” In her second sale, she actually found a long-lost diamond in a sock. Stone even discovered an 18-karat pocket watch in the back of a drawer and $10,000 tucked between the pages of a book. “The most scandalous things that she has found are, alas off the record.” (That has my imagination in overdrive.)

Boston art dealer David Kantrowitz describes more “‘Antiques Roadshow’-type moments” where tchotchkes turned out to be treasures: “a $15,000 gold cuff bracelet that a son almost threw away, a $20,000 pair of midcentury armchairs from an attic home office, and a $25,000 silver-plated box on a hall shelf. One of his latest finds: A tchotchke on a kitchen counter in an apartment of a 98-year-old man turned out to be a sculpture appraised at $4,250.” His daughter didn’t even like it, and was happy to sell it and buy a pair of earrings, “something meaningful to her to remember her dad by. ‘They’ll be from him,’ she said.” Kantrowitz also found a diamond wedding ring and band in a hazardous-waste bag in the back of a closet. (Ashlea Ebeling, “Pass On Your Heirlooms, Not Family Drama,” Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2023).

I have my own estate sale stories. When I served as an executor of an estate, my law firm had a similar treasure hunt as we prepared for the estate sale. There was a massive book collection requiring us to turn through each page, as we regularly discovered money hidden between the pages. We even found a folded piece of paper that looked like a kid’s “fold, cut here, and paste” project from school. It turns out that “art project” was the real deal, a piece of “art” valued at $400,000!

A word of advice: Prepare a “Red File” revealing information your executor needs to know, such as valuable art objects and where you hide your buried treasure.

Proceeds from the estate sale pass to heirs under the residency clause of the Will. As for the final items that no one buys, donate the leftovers to charity. No doubt, someone will later discover yet more treasures at the local Goodwill or Salvation Army store.

Marvin E. Blum

Marvin Blum’s wife Laurie displays some estate sale treasures (antique chest, cloisonne horses, and china) acquired over the years by the Blum family.