A family member has passed away or moved into assisted living. What should be done in situations where the family can’t or doesn’t care to deal with the personal property that’s left behind? Generally speaking, most items in an estate situation will fall into one of the three following categories:


Ideal method for turning a large quantity of personal property into cash in one day.

Properly conducted it will achieve competitive prices for those items of an antique or collectible nature and it will effectively “move along” household and other items.

There is a reason the auction method is used to break up the world’s largest private collections and estates. It works.

Putting merchandise before the general public at an unreserved auction and selling it to the highest bidder is a time tested way to achieve strong prices and in many cases, record prices, for personal property.


Some items, clothing of the elderly as an example, don’t enjoy strong demand at auction and should be donated to a charitable organization.

Low end, common household items have little demand in today’s market. They don’t have enough value to warrant spending too much time or money on them.


And then there’s the stuff that accumulates when you’ve lived in one house for 40 years. Even neat-nicks will have a certain amount of stuff from the “just in case” mentality. At the other end of the spectrum are the folks who have been through two world wars and a depression and they’re not going to be caught short the next time around. Six foot tall stacks of used cottage cheese containers, full chest freezers that amount to archaeological digs, 45 half used, half dried cans of paint. All of these things need to be properly disposed of or recycled.

Back to the auction….

What to do with Grandma’s “stuff” or,

“Closing a household while keeping peace in the family.”

Many decisions need to be made.

Are there specific bequests? Do the children or other heirs have a want list? Typically an appraisal is performed for items going to individuals. If the items are to be shipped a good auctioneer should be able to handle this for you.

Is what’s left saleable? There is a tipping point where expenses can exceed the value of the personal property. More stuff doesn’t always equal more income. Refer back to the six foot stack of used cottage cheese containers. In a worst case scenario you may be using the auction proceeds to help offset the expense of emptying out a property.

Does the personal property fall into an old money, well to do or advanced collector category? If so, tread carefully. People of means typically bought quality items regardless of the end use. The garden shovel is probably made in England, the picnic basket might well be pre Yuppie Abercrombie & Fitch and the water tumblers are likely from George Watts.

And then there’s the good stuff. An advanced collector will usually have a detailed inventory, appraisal or insurance papers that detail the collection. If not, your auctioneer should be able to tell you if it’s good, great or just so-so. Does the collection consist of high demand, widely sought after items, i.e. toys, clocks advertising, and main stream collectibles or is it a niche market of narrowly defined pieces, i.e. watch fobs, curling trophies, and hay trolleys? Rare and old doesn’t always equal valuable. Somebody has to want it or need it.

Oftentimes the family will be under the impression that Mom and Dad’s stuff is extremely valuable. Sometimes it is, but if it isn’t, the family needs to be told what they can reasonably expect at auction. Educating the seller prior to the sale is paramount. Unrealistic expectations need to be tempered. A good auctioneer will handle this diplomatically and professionally.

Conversely, the family may feel that it’s just “stuff” of no particular value and they may push strongly to simply split it up and dispose of the balance. That’s fine where the situations warrants, but get a qualified outside opinion before letting them top off the dumpster.

OK, we have quality items that are in high demand. What’s next? Make sure that your auctioneer is qualified to sell your items. Be wary of the auctioneer who holds himself out as an expert in livestock, heavy equipment, commercial sales, real estate, households, and fine antiques. If he’s wearing too many hats, they probably don’t fit real well. The right auctioneer will know your merchandise well. This translates into effectively advertising it, reaching the right audience, and knowledgeably selling it.

Why an auction instead of an estate sale?

Milwaukee’s use of estate sales dates back to the days when the City of Milwaukee required auctioneers to post bond and be licensed by the city. Statewide licensing laws enacted in 1995 did away with this foolishness. Prior to the statewide licensing laws, estate sellers were able to circumvent the city ordinances by conducting the  sale in a manner that was near and dear to every Milwaukeean’s heart, the glorified rummage sale, aka “estate sales”

Auctions have multiple advantages over estate sales.

At auction the person willing to spend the most amount of money will be the successful buyer.

At estate sale, the person who is the first one to get to the item will be the successful buyer. Never mind that somebody further back in line would have paid more, they won’t be given the opportunity.

At auction, the public determines the selling price. He who pays the most, wins.

At estate sales, the manager prices the items. Is it realistic to expect that one person will know how to accurately price every item in the sale? Remember that at its essence, an estate sale is nothing more than a fancy rummage sale.

At auction, get a bid number and start bidding. Immediately.

At estate sales, get in line, sometimes hours before the sale, sometimes the night before. Then hope that the list showing the order that you’ve arrived in will be honored by the estate sale company. If it is, you’ll still have to wait to be admitted 10-15 people at a time. Did I mention that it’s raining cats and dogs while you’re waiting?

At auction, the playing field is level. The auctioneer is contractually bound to sell the items to the highest bidder.

At estate sale, the company is often times allowed to buy items privately, ahead of the sale. Also, preferred buyers are offered choice pieces before the general public is allowed in. Lots of opportunity for favoritism.

Lastly, at auction, everything is sold by competitive bidding.

At estate sales, if the item is priced too high you are invited to leave a sealed bid. After the sale is over, the bids are opened and the piece is sold to the highest bidder. You might recognize this process. It’s known as an “auction”.

Whenever you hear….

“I wouldn’t want that, why would anyone else?”

We have a database of collectors for anything you can imagine.

“Let’s get a dumpster and start filing it so we can see some progress.”

Over the years we have rescued over tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise that clueless “helpers” tossed into dumpsters.

“This can’t be worth much, I had one when I was a kid.”

You’re older than you think you are.

“We have to sell this to a dealer so we can get what it’s worth.”

Dealers typically pay wholesale and look for a 50% or greater return.

“My neighbor’s sister’s daughter-in-law sells on eBay. Let’s give it to her.”

eBay can’t liquidate an entire estate and tends to side with the buyer in a dispute. We work for the seller.

“I only want one thing. You guys can gave the rest.”

Dividing an estate without regard to value is a sure way to divide the family.

“Let’s sell it ourselves and save the commission.”

Live, public auctions attract more buyers and offset the commission.