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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, April 21

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I've gotten a few emails this week with questions about estate sales. Scott from Lincoln Square wanted to know why there never seemed to be anything good at the sales he attended. To shed a little light on it, let me tell you a story.

While reading the classified section of the local paper you see there's an estate sale being held not too far from your house. The ad reads, "House and garage packed with antiques. 60 year accumulation. Everything priced to sell. Numbers at 8am." This sounds like a great sale. You make plans go in the morning.

At 7am the next morning you arrive at the house. There's a group of nine or ten people waiting around on the front lawn. You walk up to the door. A man in the group asks, "You need a number?" "Sure," you say. He hands you a paper slip with a number written on it. You look at it and see the number "24" written on it.


"What the hell is this?" you think to yourself. There's only ten people at the most standing around here waiting. You look around for the other 14 people who are supposed to be in front of you. You ask one of the group about your high number. She smiles and tells you, "Ya gotta get here early, kid." She goes back to talking with the others. They all seem to know each other. You hear parts of their conversation float by in the morning air. It's mostly about Ebay and stories about antique dealers.

"I got that Roseville at that sale on Melvina. Bob wanted to buy it from me but I knew I'd get more online."

"You go to that one on Wabansia? Junk.. all junk."

You realize these are all antique dealers. People who chase estate sales for a living. The sharks.

At 7:45 the crowd on the lawn has grown to 40 people or so. People are starting to line up according to the numbers on the slips of paper. You get in line with your number 24 in your hand. A lady's head pops out from the front door of the house.

"Five minutes, folks," she cheerfully calls out.

There's an excitement to the crowd. Everyone's shifting from foot to foot in anticipation of getting to get inside that house of goodies. The front door finally opens and the lady inside says, "First five numbers."

What the heck is this? They're only letting in five people at a time? It'll be an hour before you get to go inside. You decide to wait it out for awhile to see how bad the wait actually is.

After a half an hour or so a woman emerges with her arms full of bags. It's the same one who told you to get here early. She had number 2. She's smiling ear to ear as she walks by the line with her bags of goodies. A man in the line calls out, "Hey, Helen. Did you leave anything for us?" She just smiles and says, "Not much, sweetie."

You look down at your slip of paper and crumple it into a ball. It's time to go home.

The scenario above happens all the time at estate sales here in Chicago. It's what happens when a poorly run sale gets taken over by the regulars. The person running the sale leaves the pile of numbers on the front steps of the house. The first dealer who gets there takes the first 10 or 15 numbers and gives them to his friends. By the time we get inside all the really good stuff is gone. At a professionally run sale the numbers are given out in a controlled fashion. There're lots of ways dealers get in before you do.

Sometimes in an ad for an estate sale you'll see "no early birds." Dealers also like to show up a few days before the sale. They knock on the door begging to be let inside to buy. I know one "early bird" dealer who has been doing this for years. Most of the time he gets told to go away but every now and then they let him in. He makes a lot of money.

The worst of all is when an estate sale company has "pre-sales." This is where a select group of dealers is invited to come over a few days before the sale. They buy up everything good before the general public even gets to see what's inside.

If you know what you're up against you'll have a better chance of getting something good. It's always nice to go to a sale that's run by someone who knows what they're doing and tries to be fair to everyone. The best run sales have someone checking the line in the morning, doesn't allow early bird buyers and never has pre-sales. One of the best companies in Chicago is Somerset Estate Sales. I've known the owner for years now and he never disappoints. If you see one of his sales advertised you'll know what you're getting. An honestly run, great sale. His website also has an excellent question and answer section regarding estate sales.

Besides going to well run sales, you can always beat the dealers at their own game. Get there early. I mean hours before the sale, as early as you can get up. Get your number, leave and go grab some breakfast. It sure beats standing around listening to the "I got fifty bucks on Ebay for dat" stories. Get back a half-hour before the sale begins to take your place at the front of the line. If there's something you collect or are looking for, let the person who runs the sale know. Give them your phone number. Most of the people who run estate sales are dealers as well and are always looking to sell.

It's not that hard to beat the dealers at their own game. With a little extra effort you, too, can get the good stuff. As they said on GI Joe, "Knowing is half the battle."

I'll see you in line.


One of my favorite sites to find info on upcoming antique shows and auctions is Antique Week. They have a calendar that is searchable by state and date. You can check out all of the antiques shows and auctions in your area.

Another great site is The National Auctioneers Association. Click on the "find an auction" link to see auctions near you.

Have fun buying, and if you have any questions you'd like answered about antiquing in Chicago email me at ronbighappyfunhousecom.

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About the Author(s)

Ron Slattery is a collector of interesting junk and other wonderment. You can visit him at and

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