Mom May Be Gone, but What About All Her Stuff?

My mom Debby (on left) with her friends — and a hint of all the stuff in her apartment, some of it valuable, some of it not. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Earlier this year I wrote that Nobody wants the family heirlooms anymore, about the problems of getting rid of stuff when we want to downsize or a parent passes away. It was perhaps the most popular post I've ever written on MNN — likely because so many people are going through this. I followed up with The story of (getting rid of) stuff.

But it's one thing to write about the problem or to talk about my own voluntary downsizing; it's another thing to deal with the death of my mother in May and to dispose of her estate, all of her stuff.

And there was a lot of it. After she had a terrible fall three years ago, my sister and I felt it was better to keep her in her apartment, surrounded by the things she loved, rather than put her into a nursing home. But now we couldn’t have a discussion about getting rid of stuff while she was alive, and very suddenly, my sister and I had to deal with getting rid of it all — most which we thought was quite valuable.

Or was it? In fact, when you looked closely at the dishes and the Chinese lacquer, it was not quite what it seemed. My mom was an interior decorator and she had a really good eye; she also had an eye for a bargain. Karen Von Hahn had the same problem dealing with her interior designer mom’s estate, and wrote in her recent book "What Remains: Object Lessons of Love and Loss":

All of her beautiful things, so artfully arranged, now seem worn and tired. There are racks and flaws in the frames and edges of marble and mirror, and the once gleaming silk and satin surfaces are stained and frayed at the seams, like theatrical costumes backstage after the houselights have been turned on.
chinese lacquer
Don't look too closely at my mom's stuff. (Photo: Bonnie Alter)

This was the story of my mom’s stuff; there were a few good pieces that were called out in her will for my sister or me; but the rest we wanted to get rid of, and my sister, TreeHugger emeritus writer Bonnie Alter, took charge of that process. It was hard to even get anyone to come out and look at it. It was almost humiliating, being offered almost nothing for what we thought were treasures. In the nick of time, Bonnie found a local auction house, A. H. Wilkens, who did a wonderful job for us.

Bring in the cavalry

But others, in other cities, might not be so lucky. However there are some interesting new options available; In my earlier posts I mentioned two companies that deal with this problem in the modern online world. One example is Everything But The House (,EBTH, founded by Jacquie Denny.

EBTH was founded by Denny and Brian Graves in Cincinnati in 2007; it's "a full-service estate sale business with a focus on driving awareness through a web presence." In the 27 cities where it operates, its staff come to your home, look at your stuff, photograph it, pack it and put it up online for auction, as the video above explains. Unlike local auctions, this taps into the "long tail" of the Internet; there may not be someone locally who wants a particular tchotchke, but there may be someone somewhere who does. After going through the process of getting rid of my mom’s stuff, I definitely had questions and Denny was happy to answer them.

MNN: How do you deal with clients' perceived value of the contents vs. the reality?

Jacquie Denny: We start with a free consultation and very quickly get into a discussion of sentimental value vs. fair market value. I ask each family to point out the five items that are most valuable to them. I will then often go pick something else out that they were going to donate, and tell them that it is worth 40 times what their perceived valuable object was worth. I try to set expectations very clearly, but tell them that we have a million people looking at the auction website and that really, in the end, the market determines the value.

I have learned that most auctions and estate sales are pretty small and don’t generate that much money, so your value proposition is really the big online auction?

Yes. When I started doing this before the internet, when I did an auction for our family and it was picked over by dealers and they would all make more money out of it than the family did, I remember complaining to the auctioneer who replied “well little lady, that’s what auctions are, they are wholesale, they are about bargains.” Well it wasn’t a bargain for my family and that was the initial "aha" moment. How can we put the family in the dominant situation?

Fashions change. The auctioneer we found told us that midcentury modern was now tired and people were going back to blue and white and china, and that my mom had good stuff. Do you find this, that good stuff doesn’t sell because it is just so unfashionable now?

Ninety percent of the china out there could be put in a big landfill right now. It is true that dollars follow trends, but there is always that group of people who buy what they love and with a million buyers, we still find that we can sell every style. Some people are disappointed that they didn’t get what thought they might for one item, and then something else that was not expected to get much does very well and it balances out.

There are 75 million baby boomers downsizing with tons of stuff, and even more millennials, who might be the buyers, who do not have big places or lots of money. Do you think that we're going to have a long-term problem of too much supply and not enough demand?

We have to choose our cities carefully, and data drives everything we do. But the online presence helps even it out. We also are very careful about what we put up on the site, convincing families to donate what we just don’t think will sell.

People are emotional and stressed going through these kinds of changes. When I was a practicing architect doing houses, I sometimes felt that I was more of a marriage counselor than an architect. Is this often a problem for you, facing people who cannot agree on what goes what stays? Does it get tense?

I have been in the middle of two brothers fighting over an old ashtray in the living room — and it wasn’t about value, they just wanted to win. For us, it is very much about being a mediator for the family. I am surprised how nice it can be for families just to have people to make a decision, that this makes sense, and nobody loses face in the argument. That turns it into a win-win. If there is any dysfunction in a family, it comes out in these transitions. When I got into the industry I found that people, more than just having someone sell their stuff, need someone to take the emotional burden and back-breaking physical labor off their plate, so that they can focus on closure.

african art
Mom's African art. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

I was really lucky with my mom’s estate; my sister Bonnie did the bulk of the work, we never fought over anything, and in the end it worked out wonderfully. But if you don't have a great local auction house, check out Everything But The House (, which operates in 27 cities and has a new service for larger estates that can operate anywhere.