Sunday, October 16, 2011
Expedition: Estate Sale!
Looks like I'm well-equipped for a fine expedition: Sturdy canvas rucksack? Check! Plenty of glass vials for collecting specimens? Double check! Significant length of hefty hemp rope? Certainly!
Well, the truth is I've just returned from a brief expedition, and the provisions pictured were acquired along the way! Last Friday evening I noticed that an estate sale was to occur several blocks from my house first thing Saturday morning, so I set out at dawn to see what the day might bring. I took a brisk sweep through the first and second floors of the Craftsman-style home and found nothing of interest until I reached the kitchen and noticed a staircase leading down to the basement, which is generally the part of the home I enjoy poking around in most (besides the garage) when I visit estate sales.
Allow me, please, to attempt a brief explanation of the allure of estate sales (it is a complicated topic for me, so I must err on the side of brevity if I'm to keep this post moving along!) I'm very drawn to things, especially old, curious things with a history of some sort. I certainly enjoy antique stores and flea markets, but in these places one is apt to be confronted with a random and often overwhelming jumble of objects that have been stripped of any historical context, while the objects at estate sales have, in a sense, been "curated" by the former owner, creating the possibility of happening upon ready-made collections of interesting objects if you can manage to arrive at the sale early.
A true estate sale occurs when the resident of a home has passed away and the remaining family members, after dividing up heirlooms and special items that hold meaning for them, are faced with the task of clearing out everything else that the departed has accumulated over the course of their life. Strangers are invited into the home to purchase whatever they may find, a process that the family may find upsetting, and so the whole operation is generally carried out by some estate liquidation outfit that is equipped to deal with hordes of Saturday morning bargain hunters keen on discovering that rare Ming vase that the family surely overlooked!
The thrill of the hunt is powerful, true, but I am most moved when I discover that I share some interests with the deceased and thus happen upon that collection of odds-and-ends that, as I mentioned before, was seemingly curated with the sole intent to surprise and delight me upon its discovery, as when I pick out from amongst the clutter a few old books on whaling or Native American culture, or some choice mineral specimens. During the brief time I spend in the vacated home picking up small surprises, I privately celebrate the life of the former occupant, promising to offer a new appreciation and home for the objects they once held dear. Estate sales also offer a reminder that our time on earth is very limited indeed; all of the interesting curios and souvenirs I have picked up along the way that hold memories and meaning for me will eventually end up in one of two places: the dump, or in the hands of someone else who will appreciate them. I hope for the latter, and so I mostly aim to choose my acquisitions judiciously!
Aha! Back down to the basement we go, where our former master of the estate presided over an extensive collection of engines, power tools, welding machines, gun-making and maintenance equipment, mineral specimens and just about every manner of screw, nail and other hardware imaginable. The estate sale operator hadn't bothered to sort through drawers and drawers of stuff, nor to price anything, so, this experience being rather akin to mining, I donned my hard hat and dug right in!
Here's a general tip for those looking to acquire stuff: visualize whatever it is you want, and know that it will be yours one day; perhaps not within a day or week, but most likely when you've just forgotten you wanted it, it will appear. Remember how I used to be so interested in the history of whaling, and even went so far as to craft a faux display bottle of whale oil? That project was inspired by a visit to Mystic Seaport and the fact that I wasn't having luck finding any real whale oil, which, in the past, was used for everything from candles to margarine. Just so happens it also makes a superior gun lubricant, which is precisely why I happened upon a bottle labeled "Sperm Oil" in a drawer containing other gun-maintenance accoutrements. It was in a self-labeled bottle, true, but the oil within bore the very mildly fishy smell and tiny suspended white spermaceti crystals that left no doubt as to its authenticity!
I'm a sucker for old bottles and vials of any sort, and I found plenty of those; I don't yet have anything in mind for them, but they came in a couple of colorful vintage cigar boxes which was a nice bonus! The large old canvas rucksack makes the perfect beachcombing bag, while a smattering of rough turquoise specimens from Nevada, some wonderful, thick old hemp rope, a few little antique brass containers, and a jar of reflective glass spheres round out the morning's finds; not bad for ten dollars!
This next batch of items came from the home of an elderly gentleman who had many interests; according to his daughter, who was handling the sale personally, he was a locksmith, artist, engineer, jeweler, traveling salesman and avid flea market enthusiast. My heart nearly stopped when I spied a set of Native American-themed jewelry stamps of the sort used in Navajo silver jewelry. I grabbed a nifty old wooden box from a nearby desk and put the stamps inside, then happily poked around the crowded workshop for another hour or so picking up a few more odds and ends: a jumbo fish hook (a size commonly used for catching sharks I've since been told), a terrific book on whaling, and a fun vintage "ancestor mask" from Papua New Guinea. The whole lot was just five dollars; the deceased gentleman's daughter was happy to have a little help clearing a few more items out of the house-- just a few items, true, but at least they were destined for a new a new life rather than the dumpster out front!
I've already put those stamps to use; below is my first attempt at doing some stamping on copper... maybe when I get better at it I will move up to silver!
Thank you ever so much for joining me on this little expedition! If you should happen to have access to sea urchins in your area, you may enjoy my upcoming tutorial... coming soon!