Shoppers seek vintage bargains at estate sales

Appraiser Bruce Treadway prices a barometer Aug. 18 for an estate sale at a home in Woodstock.
Appraiser Bruce Treadway prices a barometer Aug. 18 for an estate sale at a home in Woodstock.

Connie Tondo loves to shop.

The Algonquin resident was perusing a library book sale four years ago with her husband when the couple passed an estate sale and decided to stop by. The rest is history.

She now starts each week looking for estate sales within a 20-mile radius of her home, with her farthest destination being Aurora over the years.

That usually includes attending two or three a week in search of small antiques and vintage pieces, with her most satisfying purchase a more-than-120-year-old beaver fur top hat her husband had always wanted.

“I’m hooked,” said Tondo, 46. “It’s not about finding the best bargain, but about finding things that I like. You never know what you are going to come across.”

Estate sales and auctions have shifted over the years from executives, trust officers and attorneys trying to unload merchandise to clients downsizing during tough economic times, local experts agree. The shift leaves shoppers with plenty of options due to an abundance of sellers throughout the area.

Bruce Treadway founded Caring Transitions of Northern Illinois in December 2006.

The business focuses on estate sales and online auctions and has grown to include offices in Crystal Lake and Lincolnshire, with a third planned for Arlington Heights.

Caring Transitions handled 76 estate sales and online auctions in 2011. Through the first seven months of this year, it has hosted 48.

“The industry has definitely changed,” Treadway said. “Five years ago, 90 percent of our business was through executors, trust officers and attorneys. Last year, half our clients were people looking to downsize. The major shift has been is more and more people in their 60s, 70s and 80s waking up and deciding they don’t want to shovel snow or rake leaves anymore.”

Caring Transitions sends a crew, including a decorator, into the home to transform it into a boutique in preparation for an estate sale. The next two or three days are spent pricing the items before the two-day, sometimes three-day, selling event.

Buyers generally line up at least a half-hour before the sale begins and are given numbers similar to deli slips handed out in grocery stores to keep the line moving in an orderly fashion, Treadway said. Groups of eight to 10 then are let into the home to shop, with as many as 300 making it through the home each day.

It’s not uncommon to see many of the same people at different estate sales.

“Everybody I have come across is really friendly and very nice,” Tondo said. “I’ve made friends and know many people by their first names. If you get in before some of them, you help them out and hold what they want until they get inside.”

Private estate sales are also held by invitation only. Those usually include antiques dealers, shop owners and active collectors searching for specific items.

Homeowners either pay Caring Transitions a flat fee for their services or give them a percentage of total sales. Many unsold items are donated to local nonprofits.

Those uninterested in having hundreds of shoppers in their home often choose an online auction to sell items.

“The big difference is you have to take a lot more photos for an online auction,” Treadway said. “If someone is going to bid or commit money to something, they want to see it from every dimension.”

Elgin-based Bunte Auction Services Inc. hosts auctions in its 30,000-square-foot gallery the last weekend of each month and hosts decorative art sales on Mondays four months a year.

Owners Kevin and Kerry Bunte often deal with clients who are downsizing or looking to profit from a collection, but the majority of business comes from banking institutions and lawyers representing a family trust of someone recently deceased.

“We are as busy as we have ever been,” Kevin Bunte said. “The economy doesn’t affect when people pass away, but the lower- and mid-range merchandise took a hit with the economy, and it hasn’t fully recovered. The high-end stuff is still here because people with money still spend it.”

Auctions generally take place in two formats: walk-around and sit-down.

During a walk-around auction, customers stroll the aisles of the gallery while items are being auctioned. The more traditional sit-down auction allows shoppers to bid on one item at a time. Buyers can preview the items beforehand with each auction.

“A lot of people who haven’t been to auctions are afraid because it’s the unknown,” Bunte said. “When they do come, they end up being repeat customers.”

The main objective is reaching common ground on the price of an item.

“It’s a game played between the auction company and the buyer,” Bunte said. “They want it cheap and we want to sell it for as much as we can. Hopefully we meet somewhere in between that’s closer to our side.”

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