June 20, 2024


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The Ethical Quandaries of Estate Sales

The Ethical Quandaries of Estate Sales

Welcome to The Trend Times, a column that explores design fads in the age of doomscrolling.

I keep my dog treats in a ceramic baking canister that was once owned by Jeraldine Saunders, the author of a memoir that inspired the Love Boat empire, one of the most successful TV franchises of the 1970s. Her estate sale in July of 2019 was one of the first—and best—I ever went to in Los Angeles. Though she had died in the hilltop Glendale home six months earlier, the estate still felt very much alive with her mythology. As Saunders was also an astrologer, palm reader, and self-admitted Cougar—at 89 years old, she was featured on TLC’s Extreme Cougar Wives—with no survivors, all of her tchotchkes, woo woo books, glamorous vintage clothing, and midcentury furniture were for the taking.

This was the first time I had been confronted by the range of uncomfortable feelings that arise when you enter a dead stranger’s home and start rifling through their nightgown collection. It doesn’t seem to matter that you’ve been invited inside: There’s an eeriness and embarrassment to an entire life of belongings being offered up for sale—from coveted china to half used coffee-stained notepads—often displayed in the very state they were last left in.

An estate sale inspires an emotional rollercoaster in a buyer that’s completely unique to the experience. When you’re thrifting, you have no idea where something came from, and that’s part of the appeal. At a garage sale, you often meet the seller, but they generally want to get rid of their stuff. Estate sales, on the other hand, typically happen when someone has to purge because of one of the four “Big D’s,” as they are referred to in the industry: Death, Divorce, Debt or Downsizing. And it’s not just some old boxes in the garage—it’s all of it. Often, surviving family members will hire a professional to run the sale in exchange for a percentage of the profits, giving way to stereotypes like that don’t have a lot basis in reality

Recently, online celebrity auctions have elicited a similar response, as we all tried to figure out how to feel about deceased author Joan Didion’s sunglasses selling for $27,000. (I’m sorry, it was weird that her used—stained!—leather trash cans were sold for $5,500, even though the proceeds will benefit multiple charities.) On the other end of the spectrum, the storage locker contents of influential Gen X writer Elizabeth Wurtzel were sold for less than they were worth, a twist of the knife to friends who already felt her death was largely unacknowledged by the literary establishment.

People get even touchier when they consider the estates of regular, non-famous people—and the prospect of randoms entering their actual homes to buy. Ramping up during the pandemic, influencers on TikTok started sending droves of their young followers to estate sales, transforming an industry that used to be known as a weekend hobby for retired Boomers. “From lots of conversations I’ve had, the companies that run them [are] like, ‘We’ve never seen a turnout of such young people that are like finding your videos in L.A. and coming to estate sales,’” Macy Eleni (of @blazedandglazed) told House Beautiful in 2020. One estate sale company in Massachusetts spent 12 years building an email list of 6,000 potential buyers, only to find their business revolutionized overnight when they started promoting their sales on TikTok and found that 50,000 views would easily translate to lines around the block.  

Estate sales going viral isn’t happening in a vacuum; the popularity of buying used stuff is driven by Gen Z’s desire to live more sustainably. Why make new stuff (and new trash) when there’s better made—and cheaper—alternatives already available? But the ethical purity of that mission is lost on Americans who can’t see past taboos around death. Search the comments section of any estate sale influencer and you’ll find someone going so far as to call them “overexcited grave robbers.”  

This response has everything to do with how Americans are conditioned to see death as a finite and solemn ending—as opposed to the beginning of life taking on another form, a cause for celebration of a life lived. Our over-medicalization extends even to the bitter end, as most of us are very far removed from the process of dying itself. As opposed to other cultures, where loved ones pass at home surrounded by family and friends, we outsource the entire enterprise to hospitals, hospice, and funeral homes. 

Seen through this lens, it becomes easier to understand why estate sales on TikTok might make some feel uneasy, why a love note I found scribbled in one of Saunders’ books still haunts me, like I purchased someone else’s secret. But maybe this has less to do with death, and more to do with stuff—the way, despite its utter futility, we try our hardest to love it into life. We spend our entire lives making monuments of our belongings; our homes become shrines to the people we were, the ones we want to be. The handmade vase bought on a honeymoon trip to Oaxaca, a set of candle sticks passed down from a grandmother, they mean so much to us personally that we often lose touch with their actual, objective value. At an estate sale, it’s jarring to see a price tag on something and be reminded that—unless you are a celebrity, and sometimes even then—the associations that turn our trinkets into treasure don’t always translate. There’s a reason conventional wisdom tells you that your memories are always worth more.

Illustration by Kaitlin Brito.

Previously from this column:

To Paint or Not to Paint: The Furniture Flipping Fight

Flipping the Switch on Fast Furniture