October 10, 1997 in Features

Scouting For Treasures Estate Sales, A Step Up From Garage Sales, Are A Great Place To Pick Up Antiques And Collectibles

Jeannine Stein Los Angeles Times

Terry Kovel hovers over a well-worn Indian beaded pouch, spotting it instantly in a jumble of colorful costume jewelry.

“This is probably very good,” she says, zooming in for a closer look at the $10 item. “Some collector is going to know exactly what it is. I’d buy it on a gamble.”

But Kovel wasn’t here to buy. She and husband, Ralph, were in Los Angeles recently to give advice on how to maneuver the competitive, sometimes thrilling, sometimes nerve-racking world of estate sales. A step up from garage sales, they can be treasure troves of antiques and collectibles -jewelry, vintage clothing, vases, figurines, books, linens and toys, all for a fraction of the price charged in stores.

The Kovels are arguably the authorities on antiques and collectibles in the United States. Authors of more than 70 books, they are perhaps best known for “Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price List.” The annual guide with some 50,000 entries will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year with the publication of the 1998 guide next month.

They also publish a monthly newsletter and write a syndicated weekly newspaper column, as well as the monthly column “Your Collectibles” for House Beautiful magazine. And they have a Web site: http://www.kovel.com. Based in Ohio, the Kovels operate out of a staffed office in their home, which is, not surprisingly, crammed with antiques.

First stop on a recent Friday morning is a 10 o’clock estate sale. Following the owner’s death, the entire contents of the house have been put up for sale, from kitchen gadgets to clothes to plants to a bedroom set.

By 9:45, cars line the street and dozens of buyers, Starbucks cups in hand, buzz about on the front lawn. The Kovels are ushered in a few minutes early to peruse the merchandise before the crowd descends.

They cruise through the dining room, noting several silver serving pieces that they predict will go quickly. Everything has a price tag, down to the tiniest tchotchke. Terry Kovel spots some Wedgwood ashtrays in the living room for $18. “That’s a good price for Wedgwood,” she says, then fixes her gaze on an Oriental teapot.

“This is a type of teapot a lot of people like to collect. (But) it says ‘China’ on the bottom, so it’s not as old as you’d like. Now, this is a beautiful lamp,” she says, rushing over to a $200 Chinese porcelain with a ginger jar base. “It’s been repaired - it says ‘as is’ on the price tag. But this kind of lamp in perfect condition would go for $500 to $800.”

She moves on to a mahogany library table priced at $950. “It’s a weird shape. But if you’re like we are - collectors - we have a table behind every sofa to put things on. Now that’s a good jardiniere,” she says, tapping a large pot on the floor with her sensibly shod foot.

Ralph Kovel spies an old tin toy for $200, a sign that the seller knows it’s a highly valued collectible. Although the price seems high, Kovel is sure a dealer will recognize it and snatch it right up.

In a small bedroom where a side table is laden with East Indian “objets d’art,” the Kovels get down to business. “This is where you have to know what this stuff is,” Terry explains. “It might be very good - or it might not.”

In the master bedroom, racks of women’s clothing line one wall. A dozen handbags sit atop a dresser; Terry picks up a small floral needlepoint bag and says that at $6, it’s a bargain.

Wandering into the garage, Ralph comes upon a table stacked with Christmas decorations. Although the holiday seems far away on this warm, overcast day, he predicts the seasonal baubles will “fly out the door.”

The Kovels make it back to the living room seconds before the doors open and the buyers spill in.

“Watch this now,” Terry says.

Sure enough, the shoppers attack the house like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Oversized bags and boxes in hand, their eyes are fixed and focused, mouths set in determination, ready for the kill.

Within seconds, the $200 tin toy is gone. The jardiniere hangs from its new owner’s hand. And minutes later, the Wedgwood is history. A woman has removed the taped-on price tag from the damaged porcelain lamp, signaling that for now, at least, it is hers. But before she moves on to the next room, she steps back and pauses to solemnly contemplate the lamp.

“If I saw something I liked, I’d be carrying it now,” Terry says.

“You have to be very quick,” Ralph adds. “When you see something, right away you’ve got to grab it. You can always put it back.”

“I think I’ll go check on that Indian bag,” Terry says. Fifteen minutes into the sale and it’s gone.

By 11 a.m., the line outside has been replaced with a line inside, of people waiting to pay. The victors have nabbed their spoils.

“This is definitely a treasure hunt,” Terry Kovel says. “It’s like the lottery. I never buy a lottery ticket. I don’t have to.”


Take some time to prepare before going to estate sales

By Jeannine Stein Los Angeles Times

Maneuvering an estate sale takes practice and skill. This isn’t like dropping by a garage sale and poking through boxes. Like the Boy Scouts, you should be prepared. Ralph and Terry Kovel, veterans of countless sales, offer these tips:

Do your homework. If you’re interested in specific periods or items, read books, talk to experts, visit museums and go to antique shows. You’ll be competing with dealers at these sales, so educate yourself. To get a sense of prices, peruse a few antique stores.

If you’re buying anything made of china, ceramic, wood or paper, look it over carefully. Sellers won’t always mark a piece as damaged. Check for cracks, breaks and mildew, as well as insect infestation. Keep anything made of wood outside for a couple of days until you’re sure it’s bug-free.

Bring a large bag or box to hold purchases. Better yet, bring a friend who can scout finds and hold items.

The early bird often gets the deals. Arrive early and have an idea of what you’re looking for. When you’re in the house, ask the salespeople which rooms hold the items you want.

Network. Chat up people while waiting for the sale to start. Chances are they know of other sales, and they’ll have the scuttlebutt on which estate sale coordinators are better than others.

Look everywhere - under tables, on top of shelves, behind sofas. Sometimes, great pieces are not in full view. Check the garden for sale plants and pots.

Plug in anything electric to see if it works.

Leave the kids at home. The mad rush can be dangerous for small children. They’ll probably be bored anyway, and even the most well-behaved child may inadvertently break something.

If you’re looking for furniture, come with measurements - length, width and height.

Don’t forget your supplies - starting with a tape measure, pad and pencil. Terry Kovel never leaves home without her monocle, suspended from a chain around her neck, which she uses to check markings and damage.

How to find sales

What’s the best way to find estate sales? Check the classifieds under estate, garage or moving sales. Beware, though: Some people list their garage sales as estate sales just to entice potential buyers.

Also, look in the phone book under “estate sales.” There are specialists who arrange sales for a living, and they usually stretch the sale out over two to three days. Ask to be put on their mailing list. And if you’re looking for specific items, ask them to alert you when those pieces are available.

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