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May 18, 2013

In a Wichita estate-sale state of mind

It’s love of a treasure hunt. It’s obsession with pieces of our past.

It’s love of a treasure hunt. It’s obsession with pieces of our past.

That’s what motivates me to go to estate sales.

They offer thrills, small disappointments, cheap entertainment, and it’s even better than watching someone hunt for stuff on reality TV.

It also can be poignant. You’re walking into someone’s home, often at the end of their life or just after, and seeing things that reflected them or were special to them. So I step into these homes feeling respectful.

At a recent Saturday estate sale in Eastborough, I spotted a LOOK magazine, the Dec. 3, 1963, issue with a cover photo of JFK smiling adoringly at his young son. The boy rests a baby-fat hand on the dark-suited shoulder of the most powerful dad in the world. “Exclusive picture story,” the headline says. The cover price in 1963: 25 cents. The price I paid on half-price day 50 years later: 50 cents. It might sell for $15 or more online.

I can’t put a price on the quirky trivia, little history lessons and amusement I get thumbing through the like-new pages. The images show an easy-going, romanticized view of middle-class America at the dawn of the Vietnam War. There are closely shaved, confident-looking men and perfectly made-up women. People dangle cigarettes, with ad lines like “tastes great, smokes mild.” They’re selling amber whiskey in decorative boxes, golden beer in tall glasses. It all looks so classy and innocent. I was 4 when the magazine came out, so the images open memories that have been filed away. The new 1964 cars were being pushed. A full-page ad shows off a turquoise Mercury Comet Caliente, “every bit as hot as it looks.”

I’ve been prowling estate sales and, to a lesser degree, garage sales in Wichita for the past 12 years. I’m not an expert. There are collectors and entrepreneurs who know the ins and outs and secrets much better than I do. For me, it’s a part-time hobby, a fun escape that I’ve been asked to share with readers.

I stood in line one brisk morning outside a home in the Crown Heights neighborhood, waiting to get into an estate sale. Before I venture out, I look for key words in estate sale ads, like “midcentury” or “vintage” coupled with “furniture.” What drew me to Crown Heights was mention of a late-1960s Pontiac. I’m more into late 1950s or early 1960s cars but can’t pass up checking out a four-decade-old car in its original state. The classic Pontiac was gone before the sale really started. Good stuff moves quickly. Connections help.

At the Crown Heights sale, several people near the front of the line seemed to know each other. They’re some of Wichita’s “pickers.” One was hunting books, another toys. When the door opened, they moved in with a laser focus.

To learn more about old and collectible stuff and for entertainment, I watch “Antiques Roadshow” and “American Pickers.” I browse eBay, Craigslist and niche sites and watch bulletin boards for hand-written notes and signs beginning with the words “For sale.”

I’m always picking up tidbits about art, antiques, collectibles, old designer furniture. In the process, I’m learning about history and gaining an appreciation for aesthetics, the idea that something should be useful as well as pleasing to look at. I know a little about all kinds of antiques. I retain a photographic memory of the exteriors and interiors of many late 1950s and early 1960s cars. I know how they smell.

My wife and I started getting into “midcentury modern” furniture, from around the late 1940s through the late 1960s, after she bought a couch at an Eastborough estate sale. At the time, we didn’t know what the couch was. The cushions still had the original, unfaded upholstery, with red, orange and gold stripes, over a dark wood frame lined with rattan. It sat low and sleek. She paid about $80.

For all the couch’s coolness, it wasn’t really comfortable. But it captured the ’60s so well. I could see it in a peaceful home library with floor-to-ceiling windows. We spent $100 getting new straps to support the cushions. Still, we didn’t really use it. Some of our friends rolled their eyes when they saw it. At one point, we almost put it in our own garage sale. I probably would have sold it for $50.

For a couple of years, we moved it from room to room and forgot about it. At some point, we started learning about designer and manufacturer labels and what the different names mean. I found some labels on the underside of the couch. It had been made by a company called Dunbar and designed by a well-known furniture designer, Edward Wormley, who reportedly said that furniture should also feed the soul.

We learned from the Wright auction house in Chicago that the couch was a Wormley, circa 1967, and had it shipped there for about $200 after we were told that it might fetch $3,000 to $5,000. It eventually sold for $1,750.

The experience stoked our interest.

Sometimes, I go weeks without hitting a sale. They pop up more often in the nicer-weather months. Often I go and don’t buy a thing. The game is to find a bargain and something we will use.

Some estate sale businesses seem to charge more than others. They generally start with full price on the first day and then drop by percentage increments on following days. Some people go only after items hit half-price, but you can also miss something good that way.

One ad caught my attention because it mentioned a certain kind of iconic midcentury furniture: a Herman Miller armchair. I went to the sale on half-price day, turned the chair over and found the labels and hardware that told me it was authentic. I went home, thought it over, looked up prices online, went back and bought it for $110. I think I made a good buy, and the chair is very cool and nice to look at – a piece of sculpture that evokes a certain time – plus we use it.

At another sale, I returned for an early 1960s turquoise and white toy Tonka camper truck because it reminded me of one Santa left for me in the early 1960s. It made me happy 50 years later to see my young daughter roll it across the floor. Toys are timeless.

About garage sales: I rarely go, because it seems I’d have to go to 100 before I’d find what I’m looking for. But I’m also missing out. We have some garage-sale-fanatic friends who spotted some “ugly” furniture they thought we would like. When they called my wife, she told them to discreetly look for a label. When our friend whispered the name into the cellphone, my wife gasped. “Get it!”

It was a mid-1950s blonde-colored end table, chair and “lamp table” in perfect shape with distinctive lines by a coveted maker, Heywood-Wakefield. Our friends bought the furniture for us, three pieces for about $50. For those who appreciate it, it’s worth at least 10 times that much.

I walked up to a garage sale at the end of my street several years ago and almost missed an old plaid suitcase.

It was $2. I realized it was a University of Kansas suitcase, the kind you might buy at a university bookstore. Printed across the plaid was a mama Jayhawk trailed by baby Jayhawks. A woman standing in the tidy garage told me that the man who had it had taken it with him to Lawrence in the early 1950s. I wondered why it didn’t have sentimental value, how it became clutter to be cleared out.

One man’s junk, another man’s garage sale treasure.

And there was a little bit of heresy involved.

I was an MU grad, buying a KU suitcase. Somebody had to save it.

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