Estate Sales 101: Etiquette, Rules, and Tips for Beginners

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The sale of late Zsa Zsa Gabor’s furniture, jewelry, artwork, and other belongings from her grand “American nouveau-Versaille” in 2018 made headlines across the art world. More recently, nearly every lot in the Lee Radziwill Christie’s estate sale sold for a total of $1.2 million in October of 2019. One of the items auctioned for $50,000 was a valuable keepsake: a scrapbook of her 1962 trip to India with her sister Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis.

While there have been a number of notable auctions of celebrity estates over the years, estate sales aren’t only reserved for Hollywood stars. So what is an estate sale, and when do people have them? Let’s dive in.

What is an Estate Sale? 

An estate refers to the money and property (including homes, artwork, furnishings and more) that can be attributed to one’s name. Estate sales, often held on-site, are public sales of the personal property contained within a household.

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The Three D’s: Death, Debt and Divorce

Families or individuals, wherever they might own property, may hold estate sales after major life events. Some of the most common catalysts for estate sales include death, divorce, downsizing or moving, or filing for bankruptcy. Other major life events may also call for an estate sale, but the primary driver for estate sales (and unfortunate) reason estate sales take place is the death of an individual.

When someone dies, oftentimes their wills will strictly state that their possessions should be liquidated and — in an effort to avoid family arguments — that equal cash amounts should be distributed to their kin. In all cases for estate sales, it may also be the case that family members or heirs have no interest in keeping the household items, or simply have no space for them.

How Do Estate Sales Work?

Estate sales are held to clear out large amounts of items kept in a home in a short period of time, typically between two to three days. Profits can go to banks, family members, heirs, and charities. Estate sales are also convenient ways to reach a large number of buyers; many buyers frequent them to find things like antiques, paintings, and treasured family heirlooms for a great deal. In fact, estate sales have been on the rise in America. 

Naturally, if not held within a massive mansion, estate sales may be limited to a certain amount of individuals at a time to avoid overcrowding. Professionals or family members can control the crowd by using sign-up sheets at entry, or by issuing numbers to people and calling these numbers in small groups. Typically, estate sales operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

Following estate sale etiquette, if you see an item you like at the sale, you’d pick it up and carry it around until you’re ready to pay. If it’s too large to carry, a staff member would mark it as sold for you. In some cases, buyers who don’t want to pay the price listed can put in a bid (this process depends on the policies of the company facilitating the estate sale). Bids, however, aren’t opened until the end of a sale; if you’re bidding for a lower price, another buyer may be willing to buy the item at the original price before the sale ends.

Characteristics of an Estate Sale

Let us make something clear, though: estate sales are not garage or yard sales, nor do they fit the characteristics of a standard auction. According to the National Estate Sales Association, estate sales generally:

  • Take place inside of a home; 
  • Occur over a two- to three-day period; 
  • Are open to the public; 
  • Cover all types of personal property; 
  • Are visually appealing to drive sales;
  • Include individually priced items that are discounted as the sale progresses;
  • Are conducted by family members when they are modest in size; and
  • Are managed by estate sale companies or liquidators if they are more complex or valuable.
Browsing vintage couture at an estate sale

Photo by Becca McHaffie on Unsplash.

If you’re wondering what sells at estate sales, think broadly. You can find everything from fine china, and valuable works of art to stunning jewels, dishware, and glassware. Some of the best items to buy at an estate sale include designer or vintage clothing (many of which are generally offered at fifty percent of the retail price), vintage baubles and home decor, silverware, first-edition books, and fine art. You may also find some small appliances for a steal, but inspect them to be sure they actually work before you purchase.

Where to Start: Tips for Beginners

Contemplating an estate sale of your own? Here are a few tips to help you get started: 

  1. Hold a family meeting.

    Make sure you know what’s being sold and when. Anticipate any emotions or possible disputes that may arise from the estate sale.

  2. Know your debts

    In case there are outstanding debts that need to be addressed and paid by estate sale profits, it’s important to bear these in mind.

  3. Look everywhere.

    This includes the attic, the basement, and the shed. History shows that valuable items could be hiding anywhere.

  4. Have the contents of the estate appraised.

    If you truly believe you have some valuable items to be sold, consult with a specialist. Possible items to appraise include handmade rugs, jewelry, and fine art.

  5. Properly secure and insure your items.

    This includes documenting, photographing and keeping records on every piece for sale.

  6. Consider charitable donations.

    Not only will you be doing a good deed, but you’ll also get the chance to write this donation off when you file taxes. Art, too, can be gifted to museums

  7. Sentimental value doesn’t always align with market value.

    Just because something means a lot to you doesn’t mean it will have a matching market price. Do your research and talk to professionals (not necessarily your friends).

  8. Determine whether you’ll sell on your own or through an estate sale company.

    If your sale is going to be complex or involve high-value pieces, you may want to enlist the professionals.

When to Consult a Specialist 

Usually, estate sales are conducted by professionals — particularly after the death of an individual — to make the process less stressful. These professionals also tend to have extensive knowledge about the market prices of household items.

Interior of home with crimson dining chairs, art on wall and ceramic objects on shelf

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However, these companies or estate liquidators do take a percentage of revenues (around 25 to 50 percent). For example, estate sale professionals can ask for 20 cents on the dollar or may instead make a consignment arrangement whereby they would make a 35 percent commission. If estate sale companies are ensuring that all items will be sold, they often won’t accept anything less than a 40 percent commission. Furthermore, if there are any costs associated with the sale (i.e. advertising, research, manual labor, and security), these fees could also be charged by the liquidators. In some cases, estate sale companies will also need to get a permit for a sale and to collect sales tax on items sold. 

Recent Notable Estate Sales

Perhaps about five percent of all estate sales actually include commodities like works by renowned artists, collectible cars, valuable coins, and must-have watch collections. Among the few that do present such extraordinary possessions are celebrity estate sales, luring flocks of fans and avid collectors alike. Here are some of the most talked-about celebrity estate sales we’ve witnessed in recent months.

Zsa Zsa Gabor

Two years after her death in April 2018, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s fabulous belongings sold at her Bel Air estate (where Elvis once lived). Among items sold was a “Dah-ling” nameplate diamond necklace for $20,000, Gabor’s passport for $4,250 and sketches she’d drawn while at her trial for slapping a Beverly Hills cop in 1989 ($2,125).

Burt Reynolds

In July 2019, the Smokey and the Bandit star’s (somewhat odd) pieces were auctioned off this past summer by Julien’s Auctions. Some of the items for sale included Reynolds’ high school diploma ($2,560), an oil on canvas of his favorite horse, titled “Cartouche” ($22,400), his signed “Bandit” scanner and CB radio ($25,000), and his Trans Am ($317,500). 

Lee Radziwill

In October of 2019, the Christie’s estate sale of the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis amounted to a whopping $1.23 million. Artist Peter Beard’s Running Giraffe sold for $60,000, four Spanish colonial polychrome painted metal retablos reached $40,000 (over three times the pre-sale estimate), and a 1963 photo album from JFK’s trip to Berlin sold for $25,000.

Anthony Bourdain

Over a year after his death, the estate auction of beloved celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in November 2019 achieved nearly $2 million. Of the 202 items up for sale, the most expensive was Bourdain’s custom Bob Kramer chef’s knife, which sold for $231,250. Other high-selling items included a personalized U.S. Navy bomber jacket ($171,150), a chrome duck press ($35,000), and a vintage Danish desk by Peter Lovig Nielsen ($30,000).