Let someone else sell your old stuff, and watch the money roll in — maybe
When it's time to let possessions go, what's the best way in to do it?
Some things prove too valuable to toss out — like that set of
Heywood-Wakefield bedroom furniture you've kept in pristine condition
since you bought it on your honeymoon in the 1950s — or perhaps too much
trouble to hawk at a garage sale — such as that heavily carved Victorian
sideboard — or, even too valuable to donate to a charity.
In such circumstances, consider selling your cast-offs by consignment.
Let someone else find a new home for the furniture, artwork, china,
or rare books you've decided you can live without.
Virtually anything, from museum-quality antiques furnishings to
heirloom jewelry to fine art, can be sold through a broker known as a consigner.
In fact, in recent years, consignment shops have become increasingly
respectable marketplaces, losing any stigma they might have had for people
who used to turn up their noses at used goods. "Even the wealthiest
people buy consignment," says Dave Anderson, co-owner of Gabriel's
Trumpet, a large upscale consignment business with showrooms in Chicago
and Wheaton, Ill. "It's a badge of brilliance to be able to buy something really wonderful."
After all, it's a winning situation all the way around: As a seller,
you recoup some of your money without the hassle of selling it yourself,
the new owner experiences the thrill of discovery of a nice piece, and the
consigner makes a profit and the satisfaction of playing matchmaker. In
most large cities, you'll find shops listed in the Yellow Pages under "consignment.
The challenge, however, is finding the right consigner for your item.
For many antique dealers, agreeing to sell your object is a simple matter of
taste. Does it fit the aesthetic or style of their shop? While consigners
may be able to give you some specific criteria for what they'll take or
won't — for example, Victorian, no; American Federal, yes — they often will know it when they see it.
"You walk in the door and say, 'Hey, lady, do you want
this?'" says Patty Ledbetter, owner of Consign Design in Chicago,
explaining how the business works. "I take things that I like. If I
want it in my home, then I want it in this store."
She advises saving time by calling a consignment shop on the phone to
find out how they'd prefer to evaluate your item. She says that 90 percent
of the time, she'll know in a phone call whether the item will work with
her tiny upscale shop in the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood.
If the consigner is still interested after you describe the item,
she'll likely either want to see it in person (if it's portable enough) or
review photographs that clearly illustrates your possession. Often it's
necessary to make an appointment in your home to evaluate a large piece of
A few things to do before you start calling around:
- Learn the history of the piece. If it's fairly new, locate any
paperwork or bill of sale that you received when you originally bought
it. When selling older items, knowing the story behind it may prove useful to the consigner in selling it.
- Get an idea of the market price, but don't necessarily expect to
make back what you paid for it. "Generally, what you paid for
this piece went out the door the moment you walked out the door with it," Ledbetter says.
- Make the item presentable. Prepare it the way you would if you were
showing it to potential buyers: Polish the silver, clean the glass,
iron the linens, and don't forget to empty drawers. Don't worry too
much about wear and tear that you can't remedy with an easy repair;
some large consigners have their own in-house shops to make repairs,
touch up finishes, and make other enhancements (for which they often will charge extra).
Other consigners expect the item to be ready for the new buyer to take
home and begin using. "You must be able to walk in here, buy it, put
it in your home, and have a dinner party that night," Ledbetter says.
Once a consigner has agreed to take your item, be prepared to sign a
contract that details the terms of agreement, including the financial
split. On average, consigners expect to keep 50 percent of the sale price.
They'll work with the seller to set the price, and obviously you can walk
away if you're not happy with what price they want to assign to it.
Then be prepared to wait. "Some things sell instantly,"
Anderson says. "We've sold them virtually off the back of the truck
as it's unloading, and other things can take six months."
The consigner may keep the item for an indefinite amount of time, or
they may have a policy about how a piece will be handled, for example,
after 120 days at Anderson's stores. The seller's names are kept private
throughout the sale. If the consigner doesn't find a buyer, the item may
be returned to the seller, or it may be kept on the floor for an
additional fee. But most of the time consigners don't want to take on items that they don't believe will find a buyer.
But the interesting, unexpected things that turn up in consignment
shops are what keep customers coming back. Ledbetter mentions a antique
mahogany English chest in mint condition that the seller decided she had lost interest in.
"It's just like your clothing — your eye changes and you
change," Ledbetter says. "My surprise is that people want to actually part with these things."