Clean, polish, position, tag: Helping people let go of a lifetime of possessions
Apr 20, 2015 06:02PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine
Estate liquidators Larry and Donna Peters.
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Clean, polish, position, tag:
Helping people let go of a lifetime of possessions
Story and photos by Judith House MenezesOn a Monday morning somewhere in the Valley, estate liquidators Larry Peters and his wife, Donna, will begin to go through someone’s home.
They will go through every space – drawers, closets, the odd nook – and sometimes find surprises. Mummified animals. A cash stuffed sock in a hamper of dirty clothes. A pistol, thought to have been stolen, taped to the underside of a dresser drawer.
They have dealt with ghosts, hoarders, bickering siblings and a number of odd items: a stuffed dog with three legs, a misspelled tombstone (limited market) and several armadillos.
“You see some weird stuff,” Larry said.
There have been warm homes and cold homes, beautiful objects and junk. No two estates sales are ever the same, and that keeps the work interesting.
“It’s a passion, a calling. I love everything about this business. I was born to be an estate liquidator,” said Larry, who has been in the business 28 years.
Their clients, usually after the loss of a loved one, are vulnerable. Kindness and sensitivity are required for there are emotions and memories, history and meanings to contend with.
The hunt for treasures
In the beautiful home in north Fresno, the hard work is done. The prices are set. The following morning a line of bargain hunters, treasure seekers, collectors and antique buffs will line up as early as 4 a.m. for their chance to buy something – an art deco Bakelite clock, a 48-state flag or a Tiffan parrot lamp.
“They like the hunt, the deal, like American Pickers,” said Donna, referring to the buyers and the popular TV show. “Most of our customers like to dig.”
An atypical sale before Thanksgiving, which Donna called “amazing,” consisted of a house styled in all-white Pottery Barn furnishings less than two years old. It sold out in three and a half hours.
At a recent sale, the offerings included a custom-made mink fur coat for $975 and a rosewood-inlaid Étagère (a display cabinet) from the 1860s for $3,750.
They once sold an $18,000 contemporary dining room table at a house on Lake Van Ness. They’ve also sold a $10,000 tapestry, a $10,000 diamond bracelet among other real jewelry, and classic cars – T-birds, MG’s and motorcycles.
But there are also hoarder homes. At one house, the Peters filled 150 large 33-gallon garbage bags.
“They’re not all clean,” explained Donna, describing the range of homes as “good,” “bad” and “ugly.”
One appeal of estate sales is the history, they said.
“It has a past,” said Donna of sale items.
“It takes people back to an innocent time, a simpler time, maybe a more fun time,” Larry added.
But he said some people are in it for the money. And there are compulsive buyers with underlying emotional issues who are trying to fill a void.
One woman used to purchase items from him and, after she died, they did her estate sale. In the garage, they found shopping bags full of unpacked items.
“She never put it out and enjoyed it,” he said.
Skill as an antique dealer has helped
As a former antique dealer and collector, (he was a dealer for more than 40 years and still appraises) Larry has knowledge to back up his appraisals. His parents were longtime antique dealers and, as a young man, he was involved in the Serendipity! Antique Show. Though his mother has been gone for three years, he still gets goose bumps.
“I know Mom’s watching,” he said. “I feel her presence a lot. It pushes me to be a better person.”
Larry quit retail sales of antiques three years ago to focus entirely on the estate sales. Previously, he bought whole estates when the couple’s three children, now adults, were younger. The Peters were also once collectors. Their home is a mixture of old and new, with European art glass, art nouveau, pretty Victorian things and lots of collectibles. When their children were growing up, their friends had a special name for their home.
“Our house was known as the museum,” said Donna.
Best ethical practices
Unlike their competitors, the Peters do not sell box items. Instead, each item is priced individually, maximizing profit for the families and them.
They don’t need to advertise. Their business is through referrals. Larry also does the Fig Garden Ladies Club sale.
There are two strict rules that Larry and Donna have. They guarantee all checks they take at the sale and they do not allow pre-sales or cherry picking.
“It’s all about ethics,” he said. “In this business it’s all you have.”
At the end of the first day of a sale, if an item catches their eye and hasn’t sold, they will ask the owner if they can buy it. More often than not, the owners will give it to the couple in gratitude for their hard work.
Most the clients are relieved to have someone else handle an estate sale.
Donna said people tell her, “We are so grateful to have you do this.”
Larry said his competitors force clients to fit their business mold. He does the opposite.
“We mold to their needs,” he said. “Each one is different, each one needs different care.”
For a Seventh-day Adventist family, he held the sale on Friday and Sunday.
Still, sometimes there are family arguments. Said Donna: “Money brings up the bad, the good.”
Great customers, some like family
Larry said they have an “unbelievable following of customers” from doctors and lawyers to field workers. They get new buyers each week and some become like family that sends them Christmas cards every year. About 2,000 people follow them on social media.
The Peters will go anywhere in the state but most of their business is in the Valley. Last year, they oversaw three sales in Hanford, two in Madera, and two in Tulare in addition to the several they handled in the greater Fresno area.
Many of their employees are family. Larry’s father, 88, works the sale with his girlfriend. Larry’s son, Matthew, 18, an aunt and a friend also work sales. All told, seven to eight people are involved on sale day.
The Peters typically charge a 20 to 50 percent commission. The couple does about 45 sales each year, with bookings two to three months ahead, and some weekends there are two sales.
It began with a customer
A nice woman, a friend who used to buy antique porcelain from Larry, passed away. Her daughter found his business card among her mother’s possessions. On the back was a note: “If you ever want to sell everything call him.”
“They asked me to come over. It was like going back in time,” Larry said. “Just amazing merchandise. That was how it started. From there it mushroomed.”
Before a sale, family members remove anything they want. The Peters advise families not to be there for the sale. The cycle usually starts on a Monday morning with Larry appraising items for two to three days and Donna cleaning and setting up. Before the sale, 200 photos and a thorough list of items appear on their website, where people can sign up for e-mail alerts on sales. The sale is advertised in newspapers and on Craigslist and Facebook.
By Friday, the final touches are made and the signs are out. The sale is held on Saturday and Sunday. About 200 people line up early, sometimes before the sun rises.
“We call it controlled chaos,” Donna said. “It is something to be seen.”
Hidden treasures and spooky things
Both Larry and Donna have stories to tell – sad, funny and strange. Years ago, Larry was alone, preparing for an estate sale in the Hanford home of two deceased sisters, 94 and 96, who had never married. They were born in the house and had died in the house within six months of each other. He would arrive in the morning and hear unusual noises. Doors would close, lights would go on, a book would fall off a shelf.
“Finally I realized there was something there,” he said.
When he went through the door one morning, he started saying, “‘Good morning ladies. Show me how you want it.’
“I never heard anything again.”
Some homes have been cold, as if there has been strife, he said. Other homes have been warm and inviting.
“It’s like the walls are exuding this happiness,” he said.
Fortunate things can happen such as the time Donna found a sock full of $3,400 in cash.
“They couldn’t believe they missed it,” she said. “They couldn’t believe we were so honest.”
Sometimes people give a home to odd things. A man purchased the three-legged dog mounted on a piece of wood to display by his pond.
As for anything embarrassing they might find, Larry said, “We make no judgments. We are very discreet.”
Donna said people ask them how they can just let go of the beautiful possessions they come across.
Larry is philosophical.
“We don’t own anything,” he said. “At best, we are caretakers for these inanimate objects in a short amount of time."
The business is more about helping people than pretty objects.
“I hang my hat on that,” he said.
For more information about Larry Peters Liquidation, go to lpliquidation.com.
Judith House Menezes is a professor of
journalism and adviser to the student newspaper at College of the Sequoias in