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Estate Sale Mania
Michigan’s economic woes make great picking for shoppers and good business for Jewish sale professionals.
Numbers one through 15, come on in …” With those seven words, another estate sale begins, and the hunt is on. Across Oakland County and beyond, estate sales mean big business, big adventure and, unfailingly, big bargains. According to estatesales.net, the Michigan market is the second largest in the country.
There is more to an estate sale than organizing and pricing troves of treasures. The professionals running them each week might be appraisers and researchers one day, event stagers the next, hand holders throughout, savvy bargainers and, on occasion, eagle-eyed enforcers who stop light-fingered lookers right in their tracks.
Andy Adelson of West Bloomfield, who, with his wife, Linda, runs Everything Goes Estate Liquidations Inc., has been in the business for more than three decades. He is not surprised at the statistic reflecting Michigan’s prominence in the estate sale arena.
“Detroit is a mecca,” Adelson says. “It’s because of all the wealth deposited here in the heyday of the auto companies. Everyone came to Detroit for jobs and, as a result, companies followed: furniture companies like Knoll and Herman Miller, designers who came to Cranbrook, anything related to the auto industry, such as hotels and restaurants. And now, all the people who made a lot of money in those days, traveled all over Europe and brought back artwork and antiques are downsizing or they’ve died. Some serious wealth is being liquidated.”
Robin Cohen of Bloomfield Hills, who runs AOM Estate Sales, agrees with Adelson’s analysis.
“Detroit is coming back,” she says. “Houses are selling quickly, and a lot of affluent people are downsizing. They may have second homes and can’t take, or don’t want, the items in their primary home. There’s a lot of wonderful inventory available.”
Also driving the surge in estate sales is a renewed appreciation for vintage (read mid-20th century, all you baby boomers!) furniture, and the desire to buy American, and even more specifically, to buy furniture made in Michigan. At a recent Antiques on Main sale, a 1950s day bed designed by Mies van de Rohe for Knoll found a new home with someone who realized that at $4,000, the daybed was a dream come true. A quick look on the Internet found a similar piece for $6,500. Before shipping.
Annette Reich of Birmingham and Susan Hass of Beverly Hills, co-owners of Artful Solutions, also have noticed this affinity for a made-in-Michigan label.
“Young people don’t want starter furniture,” Reich says. “They appreciate the craftsmanship of these pieces, the hand carving, the design. It’s in vogue to buy great-quality used furniture; and we have people calling us every week asking if we have furniture made in Michigan, in Grand Rapids in the 1920s or later.”
Iris Kaufman of West Bloomfield, owner of Estate Sales by Iris, who could easily be called the grand dame of estate sales, also has seen the shift in interest from English and French furniture 30-40 years ago to today’s preference for mid-century furnishings.
“What I love most,” says Kaufman, “is the academic part of this business. Even though I’ve been doing this for 50 years, I’m still learning; there is always something that I’ve never seen. It has to be looked up, and not necessarily on the Internet. Once I discovered two Rembrandt etchings in a house that had absolutely no other art. They were in junky frames and I thought they were reproductions, but they weren’t. I told the owners to keep them, that as time went on they would increase in value.”
The Rembrandt etchings aside, Kaufman has sold her share of stunners over the years, including a 19th-century sterling silver humidor from the estate of John DeLorean and Mary Woolworth Donohugh’s alligator skin traveling trunks made by Louis Vuitton. Her best find centers around a “Jewish candlestick” brought to her by a silver dealer who didn’t know what he had and just wanted to unload it.
Kaufman’s late husband, Arnold, was on Temple Beth El’s board at the time and worked with the rabbi to identify a congregant who agreed to purchase the hand-wrought menorah for the synagogue’s collection. Appraised by Sotheby’s Judaica expert, the “Jewish candlestick” turned out to be a 19th-century sterling silver menorah from France.
“Their representative said it had to have come from a family such as the Rothschilds or from the Grand Synagogue of Paris,” says Kaufman.
Judaica At Estate Sales
It is not uncommon to find Judaica at estate sales, and many who run the sales have the number of Rabbi Eleazer Cohen of Oak Park on speed dial. He often is called at the close of a sale to purchase prayer books or other ritual items that remain behind. Cohen also attends the sales, always on the lookout for books, sculpture, art — whatever catches his eye.
“I don’t necessarily look for Judaica; but if I come across something, I will pick it up if the price is right,” says Cohen, who has taught at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield for more than three decades.
He showed a visitor a sculpture, acquired for a shir (song), that turned out to be signed by Frank Meisler, a prominent Israeli artist. Cohen also tells the tale of purchasing more than he bargained for. A pair of shoes turned out to have been the prior owner’s hiding place for $1,100 cash.
“The estate sale company traced the sale and gave my name to the owner,” he says. “I was able to return the money to him.”
Cohen shared other extraordinary finds, including a prayer book printed in 1699 in Sulzbach, Germany, and a Chumash (Bible) printed in 1798 in Offenbach, Germany. Sleuthing on the Internet, Cohen learned that a twin to his Chumash recently sold at auction in London for 9,600 £, or $15,000.
Estate Sale Maven
West Bloomfield resident Marlene Rosenberg caught the vintage clothing bug early, having been co-owner of a new and vintage clothing store in Royal Oak back in the 1960s. Five minutes with this exuberant woman and you’ll never buy retail again.
Rosenberg has found sculpture, furs, artwork, furniture and more for herself and for friends and family on the lookout for special items.
“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t want anyone else’s stuff.’ But how many people have tried on that garment at Nordstrom’s and thrown it on the floor for the sales girl to pick up before you tried it on? You just don’t need to buy new,” she says. “Does it matter that your dishes are stored in a cabinet you bought at an estate sale? You’re talking of acquiring something of value for 50-60 percent less than you’d find at a store.”
Not only does Rosenberg have her system down pat — each Wednesday evening she scopes out estatesales.net — but she has analyzed just who lines up at estate sales each Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning.
Chatting with a visitor at the vintage Knoll dining suite she picked up a few years ago, she explains, “Your No. 1 person is a huge collector. They are always the first 10 people in the door at any sale. They know exactly what they are looking for.
“Second are the hobbyists who go for a look-see. If they find something they like, they buy. Third are those who need something but don’t want to spend much. They case the estate sale on the first day and return on the third day during the last two hours when everything has been discounted. They might have $100 to spend, and they know they can buy so much more for their hundred dollars at an estate sale than anywhere else.”
Fourth, she says, are the history and architecture buffs.
“These people, and there are a huge number of them, want to see how a house has been furnished or get a look at a collection whether it’s coins or flags or model cars.”
Rosenberg’s favorite finds? A Judith Lieber briefcase for which someone offered her double what she was had just paid. There are the two pristine mink coats purchased for a fraction of what they would have cost new and a sculpture collection to which she is still adding. Her most notorious find? A feathered and frothy peignoir set, owned by a former call girl who had married and was unloading her work wardrobe.
Stories To Tell
The human element of the estate sale world that is such a strong draw for Marlene Rosenberg is also what motivates Artful Solutions’ Annette Reich and Susan Hass. Reich, a former business owner with a degree in social work, is drawn into the human element of every sale she and Hass organize.
“Every sale has a story,” she says. “We are going through an era where abundance is no longer in vogue. People are looking at their homes and saying, ‘I have so much stuff. Let someone else enjoy it.’”
Hass picks up the thread with a story about a mother who purchased a bedroom set for her 14-year-old daughter.
“The father had recently died, and they had had to turn the daughter’s first floor bedroom into the father’s hospital room. Now that he had passed, the mom wanted to find a way to make it the girl’s room again and not the room her father had died in.
“The mom purchased a beautiful white wicker bedroom set, and her daughter’s face just lit up when she saw it,” Hass says. “It felt good to know that this pricey set, which they could have never otherwise afforded, was going to be enjoyed so very much.”
Reich and Hass envision their model less as holding estate sales than creating a “pop-up store.” Hass has 25 years of experience in retail and special events design and takes charge of staging each sale.
“We want our customers to come in and take pleasure in shopping,” she says. “We train our staff to greet each person entering the home, just as if they were walking into Nordstrom.” During an Artful Solutions three-day sale, their team of employees is constantly culling and rearranging merchandise so that nothing looks picked over.
“You can have a bunch of towels,” Hass says, explaining their philosophy, “or you put together a wash cloth, hand towel and bath towel, tie it with a pretty ribbon and now it’s a beautiful package that someone would want to purchase.”
Newcomer to the arena, Gloria Wolok of West Bloomfield who runs Estate Sales by G& J LLC, is gratified at the following she and partner Judy Shapiro of Farmington Hills have developed over the past two years.
“The key to a successful sale,” she says, “is to keep it as unemotional as possible. Clients are not there the day of the sale. It’s hard to see their family memories being bargained for. There is a lot of hand holding as they let these things go. We make sure that if they have any thought they might want it in the future, they should keep it.”
So what are you waiting for? Check out estatesales.net. Treasures await.
By Debra Darvick, Special to the Jewish News