How to find yourself in "estate" of bargain bliss

The most recent estate sale I went to with my friend Annie was like walking into a dollhouse full of "what Ever Happened to Baby Jane" lookalikes. The "sale matrons" running the show belonged to another era unto themselves.

This was an authentic estate sale. We had hit our mark. The signs were visible on every piece of furniture and every item down to the Victorian-inspired lace eyelet curtains hanging from the enormous bay window of the mock Georgian home we had entered.

Some sales pass under the guise of estate and turn out to be glorified tag sales where the majority of items are spread out on tables in the front yard, and only a limited amount of household treasures are purchasable. An authentic estate sale is run by a family who opens their own home to the public after the death of a loved one, or in desperation before moving far away, or by a company hired by a family to do its research and appraisal.

One downside to bargain hunting at sales where the owner is not directly selling her own wares is that the bargains tend to be more scarce. This is because the hired hands or sale companies know their stuff and are less likely to sell an object of desire for less than its vintage value. They're also strict! I made the mistake of sitting on one of the three vintage sofas in the living room of the last sale I went to a little too long and was told that my time was up and that I needed to move on to another room. The estate matron explained to me in the strict tone of an authentic auctioneer that visitors were not allowed to sit on the furniture unless they were "seriously" considering buying.

I made my way to another room and ended up breaking a gold rimmed vintage wedding band wine glass which I had to pay for along with the other three I bought to match my parent's set for their wedding anniversary. Feeling like a bull in a china shop -- literally -- I made my way upstairs to peruse the vintage, if not antique, linens, most of which had been hand-embroidered with different flowers and leafy grape clusters.

Spring is the season for estate sales, although you can find them advertised year round on Craigslist and in the back of most newspapers. Come early, or else it will be picked over by mid-morning, and avoid sales where you sense the presence of estate matrons. They're stingy and, like you, they know a bargain when they see one.
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