Treasure hunt at estate sales

Contents of homes can yield some surprises

Ashley Wheeler learned at an early age that unexpected treasures can be found in unforeseen places.

When she was 14, Wheeler, owner of the Vintage Girls estate liquidation company in Roswell, traveled with her mother to a taping of PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow” in Mobile. She brought along a box of items she purchased at a garage sale for $5. At the bottom of the box were 64 letters written by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which she sold at auction for $18,000.

Now, Wheeler manages estate sales throughout metro Atlanta, and in the present economy, it has become a more lucrative endeavor as foreclosures have increased and shoppers are looking for bigger bargains.

When loved ones die, couples downsize or property is foreclosed, liquidators are called in to empty estates. The lure for shoppers is that everything from sports cars to used toiletries can be purchased at bargain prices.

“Coupled with eBay, estate sales have short-circuited the traditional method of buying and selling,” said Roswell resident Will Seippel, founder of WorthPoint (, a paid subscription Web site for collectors that authenticates and tracks the value of collectibles. “Americans are just now acknowledging that household items have value, which has hastened the proliferation of estate sales,” he said.

Finding treasures at bargain prices is only part of the attraction for shoppers. For some, the thrill of shopping estate sales is the hunt.

Bill Elkins of Smyrna prepares for his shopping expeditions by viewing sale locations on Google Earth, scouting out the goods Fridays and Saturdays, and returning to purchase items Sundays when prices are drastically reduced.

Elkins, who collects fossils, gemstones and figurines by Lenox and Hummel, finds the best deals in an area he calls Atlanta’s Gold Triangle: Roswell, Sandy Springs and Buckhead. And to this savvy shopper, prices are always negotiable. He recommends shoppers carry a smart phone and research an item’s value online from the sale.

Shopping estate sales is not without peril. Shoving and cursing among shoppers competing over a coveted item sometimes occurs.

“You can find yourself in an aggressive atmosphere with people jockeying for position,” shopper Alan Gurley of Morningside said. “If someone grabs what you’re looking for, let it go,” he advised.

Estate sale managers encounter risks of their own, said Judy Friedman of Atlanta Antique and Estate Liquidators, who has confronted everything from toxic mold to clients suffering from dementia.

“Some of the best homes where you find fabulous antiques are unsafe, country houses with rickety steps and loose floor boards,” said Friedman, who lives in Norcross. “We can’t allow customers to go into these conditions before risks are eliminated.”

One of Friedman’s most lucrative sales included documents from the estate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“This unbelievable sale was held in the same house Alex Haley rented while writing his book ‘Roots,’ so it had extreme historical significance,” she said.

The unexpected is always a factor. While liquidating a 1910 property on Mount Paran Road, Friedman made a surprising discovery. “When we opened a padlock and went through two trap doors, we found a climate-controlled library with thousands of books that took weeks to sell,” she said.

One of Wheeler’s most memorable sales was at the east Cobb County home of the late Jim Davenport, owner of WFOM-AM.

“His basement, filled with gold and platinum albums, told a story of working with great musicians, like Cyndi Lauper and Gloria Estefan, who came to parties there and sat on couches I was selling,” she said.

With the preparation and competition that goes into managing and shopping estate sales, Helen Deasy, who has operated the Turnage Place Ltd. estate sales company since 1970, said it’s important to be mindful that items were once someone’s personal possessions.

“It’s a huge responsibility selling people’s possessions for profits,” she said. “To see items go down the driveway at the best value and know people are happy that they’ve bought something to love or resale for profit are my best joys.”

For shopper Gurley, there is a cautionary tale in estate sales: “[They] remind you that the more you hoard, the more burdens you leave your descendants to liquidate.”