Local Estate Sales Offer Antiques, Good Deals on Home Furnishings — and Memorable Stories About Valley Families (The Final Word Opinion Column)

Home made: More than material treasures are discovered at local estate sales



Illustration by Chris Reed

I’m waiting in line to get into an estate sale located in a house near the base of the Helderberg escarpment in Altamont. The woman ahead of me leans over conspiratorially and says, “There’s something kind of morbid about these things, don’t you think?”

She says morbid. I say fascinating. 

An estate sale offers all the voyeuristic fun of a garage sale, but magnified. You’re not just seeing a family’s stuff set out in the garage — you’re traipsing right through the whole house, peeking into places that a stranger normally would never go. Need a skinny 1950s necktie? There’s a whole rack of them in the master bedroom closet. Here, have a look through the linens; some of the quilts are handmade.

Often there is a lock-pad on the door, indicating that even the house is for sale — and completing the sense of a family life dismantled. The pleasure is almost novelistic. Who was this family? What kind of taste did they have? What sorts of books did they read?

I was once standing around in a kitchen when I noticed, prominent on one wall, a penciled-in height chart. It showed the growth over many years of several children, now no doubt grown up and gone. Its pride of place in the middle of the room said to me, “Happy family.”

I like it when some of the large pieces of furniture are marked “not for sale.” The kids must be coming to get those, I think. See? They aren’t selling everything. Someone still cares. The kids just can’t take all of their parents’ stuff.

I don’t like all sales — Hummels and Christmas villages depress me. But I’m enlivened in the home of a family whose possessions tell a story about their passion for a subject or their curiosity about the world. I love a collection of well-used design books or old photographs painstakingly framed. At one estate sale — where the couple was clearly well-traveled — I saw an elaborate Indonesian wooden temple about two feet high, already marked “sold” and clearly out of my price range.

Things I have been able to buy at estate sales, though, include a swan rocker handmade for a child, complete with a Sharpie message scribbled on by a grandpa ($20); a three-by-five pale blue carpet that, with its darker frame in the center, reminds me of an Amish quilt ($15); a set of four nesting Shaker boxes ($18); and a pair of outsize, boldly silver-plated candelabras ($80).

Looking at these objects that now have become everyday parts of my home, I sometimes remember where I bought them, and wonder about the people who once loved them, now either deceased or moved to Florida. These pieces may not have been chosen as family keepsakes, but through them I, a complete stranger, do continue to remember — not the owners themselves, of course, whom I never met, but the home so vividly imprinted with their approach to the world. 

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