It looked like something from a Hitchcock movie
Talk of the estate sale in Bexley had been circulating for a few weeks. Word was that it would be one of the best of the season.
So, on a warm Thursday morning in July, I headed south to Bexley to register for the sale. Usually, the early bird usually gets the old worm. But in the estate sale business it’s a combination of being an early bird and an early birds who’s also friend of the auctioneer running the estate sale. That would be Max Highsmith of Highsmith Auctions.
Word is the place was owned by an eccentric old bird who had a unique taste for things and had trouble letting them go. The outside of place lent itself to this them. It looked like something from a Hitchcock movie.
Max Highsmith of Highsmith Auctions … It’s best to be on Max’s good side
I had a few things going for me the morning I arrived at the auction. First of all, I was an hour early and there was only a small group of people gathered in line to get into the home when the sale opened. And second, I had made somewhat of a friendship with Max by giving Max and his wife Mildred a few tickets to one of the OSU football games this year. Both were avid Buckeye fans. I quickly went up to Max and got number 15. It was a good number for the first day of an estate sale. The lower the number, the earlier you get into the place. It was a pretty good number as there would probably be a hundred or so people at the sale today.
It was a good number but there was a vicious group in front of me. Some of the best in the business who can run through rooms of homes sensing all the good items like champion hunting dogs. There is Harriett Steinman three in front of me. Outwardly, she appears harmless: a small Jewish woman who dresses retro wearing her trademark black hat. She has some connection to the old comedian Joe Steinman who played the dinner club circuit in upstate New York back in the 50s. So she tells me. But she is anything but harmless when you’re competing with her at an estate sale.
Harriette Steinman in her trademark black hat
And then, two-ahead places ahead of Harriett are the Brody Sisters who wrestled professionally out in LA under the name “The Grody Brodys.” They arrived in town a few years ago after retiring from the wrestling circuit and there’s speculation they did something illegal out west and are running from the law. Talk surfaces now and then about fights they get into at the bars around town. You never want to try and get in front of them in line by cheating.
The Brody Sisters … never try cutting in front of them in line
There are others in line ahead of me I’ve seen before. The usual suspects. So I know “Hold” tags will already be on a lot of stuff by the time I get into the old Victorian place. At the head of the line, as usual, is Mildred Highsmith, a tough talking old lady who smokes like a chimney. As usual, no one ever gets ahead of Mildred. At least not at the Highsmith Estate Auctions like the one today run by her husband Max. Mildred is on her fifth or sixth marriage and was a former showgirl in Las Vegas where she met Max at one of those Antique Roadshow events.
As usual no one gets in line ahead of Mildred Highsmith
I must be getting on his good side of Max as there are hundreds of people who read about the sales in the paper but only a few that Max notifies before public notice in the papers. I was recently added to Max’s mailing list. (The two tickets to the Buckeye game helped me getting on the list).
* * *
Max opened the front door to the old Victorian house at twelve right on the nose. He was always on-time like this. Mildred shoots into the place like she’s blasted out from a canon and I know that she, Harriett and the Brody’s are running around tagging things “Sold” like dogs tag trees and fire hydrants. I’m sure that Mildred has received a pre-estate sale screening of the items in the place. It’s upsetting but it’s the way everything operates these days.
Anyway, as number 15 I’m not doing bad as I branch out from the crowd and go into the side areas of the house like a den in the back of the place. But I can see that Mildred’s tag is already on the old Lazy Boy in the corner and the roll-top desk next to it.
A door opens off the den and there are steps leading down to the basement of the place. It is dim and dreary and looks like a set for a horror film. If this wasn’t an estate sale you wouldn’t be surprised to find some hostage tied up behind the furnace. A few people are already down here pouring over things. There’s not much down here: a pile of old Christmas lights, a container of old matchbooks from different places, an old toaster that might spark if you plugged it in. I quickly head back up the steps. Time is passing and “Sold” tags are starting to sprout on items all over the place. In a side room I can see that the Brody Sisters have gotten into some type of shoving match over some item.
Like the set of a horror film …
I head for a type of greenhouse addition that opens off the dining room where Harriet is putting her tag on a few chairs. Maybe Harriett or the sisters or Mildred have not been out here yet. It seems pretty unlikely since it’s only been a few minutes since Max opened the front door but you can never underestimate the supernatural power of these women.
There is a rope across the entrance to the greenhouse room with a sign on it that says “Keep Out.” Nothing more. Then, a woman walks in front of me as I look into the room at a lot of interesting stuff. “Sorry about the sign,” she says as she lifts the rope. “A mistake. It’s an open room.”
$10 for an old Renso box
I run into the room and scurry about. There are some junky things on a few tables: a school yearbook from 1968, a box of the old Rinso Soap marked with a $10 price, felt college football pennants, a collection of 45 records and boxes of comics. In the corner of the room is a rusting Huffy bike with orange streamers and some rusty roller skates.
Then, I see it. The old ice cabinet next to the wall. It is being very unobtrusive. Yet it has a price on it’s head of $370. I get up close to examine it. The wood is the type you don’t see these days. The hardware on it all real brass. A thick marble top. An old refrigerator.
I quickly look around the room. No one in sight. How long would it take Harriett or the sisters or Mildred to discover this? Why didn’t they already have their tags on the cabinet? Maybe because the room was closed off? At $370 it seems a pretty good deal but in two days on Saturday, the last day of the estate sale, the price will drop to half of this and it will be a real steal. I stand there looking at it. I open the door and see the tin molding inside., It all looks in good condition. Do I put my tag on it now and get it or come back on Saturday and not getting it at all or get it for half off?
The ice cabinet … how long before the women discover it?
The choice is one of the most strategic questions of the industry. If you can’t beat people like Mildred, Harriett and the Brody sisters the first day of estate sales, maybe you can pick up stuff they didn’t want on the last day of estate sales. And pick up the stuff at a great deal so you can make a good profit on restoring and selling it. More often than not, the item is too expensive for them to put their tag on the first day of the sale. And, after the first day, they don’t have much interest in tracking things. Why should they? They make out like bandits the first day of the sale and are usually onto other estate sales.
* * *
Saturday morning is a grey, overcast day in Columbus with enough humidity for fish to swim around in. There are only a few people in front of me to get into the house when I show up at eleven-thirty. As I suspected, the super-star women are not here today. They are probably at the big estate sale at the old ranch-style place in Upper Arlington. The wise old birds of the industry have already swooped down and cleaned everything out like vultures gutting the remains of some dead animal.
I’m number seven in line today. There is a funny, giggling, group ahead of me. I don’t recognize any of them and suspect they are all amateurs out looking for junk on a weekend.
When my number is called by Max I run past him and towards the greenhouse room. Down the long hall with the funny chandelier and an interesting portrait of legendary OSU coach Woody Hayes, through the dining room and into the greenhouse. To my wild surprise, Mildred is in the greenhouse standing by the cabinet. What the hell is she doing here today? I didn’t see her in line out front. Of course Max let her in early. This is the only explanation.
The portrait of Woody Hayes
I approach the cabinet. With the $100 (fire sale) price tag on it the item looks better than ever. Mildred stands next to it like a pit bull next to it’s master. You’re not supposed to smoke but rules don’t mean anything to Mildred and she has a big cigarette in her hand. I approach and attempt to make some non-important small talk.
“I thought you’d be at the ranch house in Upper Arlington,” I say to her.
“Not into that period,” she says.
We talk about some upcoming sales but she has little interest in all the small talk. Suddenly, I get an idea remembering that Mildred is an avid Buckeye football fan. I run back into the hall and take the portrait of Woody Hayes off the wall and run back to Mildred with it.
She is ready to pull the tag off the ice cabinet as I go come into the greenhouse with the portrait. I quickly shove it in front of her. The portrait has an effect of making her drop her guard.
“Haven’t seen this one yet,” she says holding it in her wrinkled hands with her cigarette in her mouth. “Thought I had all of them.”
She studies it like a jeweler studies a diamond and even pulls out one of those devices a jeweler studies diamonds with. As she is looking at the portrait I quickly yank the tag off the ice cabinet and rush up to the sales area and give the tag to Marge at the check-out table.
She smiles at me.
“You got a steal today,” she says. “I was sure Mildred was going to buy this.”
“I think she wants a picture of Woody a little more than the cabinet,” I say.
A strange letter found inside the ice box …
Fifteen minutes later I’m loading the ice cabinet into my SUV. Mildred is walking out with the portrait of Woody Hayes under her arm, still smoking. She gives me a very dirty look.
“I’ll remember this,” she says. “I don’t forget things like this.”
Great, I think to myself as I head back home with the ice box in the back. Mildred is tough enough when you’re a friend. No telling how tough she will be when she is mad at you. I could see that it was going to be a tough Fall in the estate sale business.
When I get the ice box home I begin doing research on it. I go on the Internet and Google information on ice cabinets like this. I find the manufacturing label and this helps place the date and the style. Inside the ice box I find an envelop and inside the envelop a letter. I read the letter and can’t believe what it says.
(Continued in a future blog … stay tuned)