Photographs by Patrick Halbe, Sandy Gibson, & David Oceanas
If I learned one thing from watching my 93-year-old mother curate and sell her Japanese-inspired home of 62 years, it is this: everything that you think is worth SOMETHING is now worth absolutely NOTHING.
Here’s how I saw the selling of a significant family home. First it was about “The art of the sale,” and then it became “The art of divesting or bequeathing.” Then it became the trashing of it all in giant dumpster!
Over the past 4 months I observed the process of unloading a lifetime of valuables into a culture that has crashed and burned. The idea that a home could be an “inspiration” has now become just another overpriced soulless asset.
So, here’s the back story; my father and mother went to Japan over 65 years ago and returned to Villanova, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia suburbs) and got architect Armand Carroll (and themselves) to build an authentic Japanese teahouse-styled three-bedroom home. This was something at the time as the Main Line neighborhood was filled with Tudor-style mansions that were basically 60 rooms of gloom.
Over the years, my Mother (an artist in her own right), collected art (highlighted by a Matisse lithograph, some Ed Ruscha’s, a Man Ray, a Wayne Thiebaud portrait of me and a tennis “sunrise” backboard by Roy Lichtenstein). She got rid of most of that and then went onto collecting American Indian and Himalayan art. She got rid of that and ended up spending time with her true loves — her meditation garden, her trees, and her giant book collection.
My brother and I left the house when we both graduated High School. My Dad enjoyed the Villanova Summers but split for Florida during the winter, and 25 years ago joined me full time in Arizona. My Mother remained in HER home for 5 months out of the year.
It became her sanctuary. She never even locked the doors, and rarely had live-in help. Everybody in the neighborhood respected the space she created for herself. She decorated the interior in eccentric one-of-a-kind pieces, vast shelves of rare books, and objects of junk mixed with serious art.
I never thought my Mother would sell her home since it was her complete work of art. And I dreaded the thought that some day I would have to unload all of it myself.
I remember ten years ago one of her neighbors told me he would buy it from me when “that day comes.” He assured me “You will make a killing — your Mom’s house is a one-of-a-kind Zen gem.” And actually, he wasn’t far from wrong. The township listed it as “historic” and we never really knew why.
But thank God “that day” never came. Instead my dad died in February in Arizona and out of the blue my mom turned to me and said, “Let’s get rid of Villanova.” I was shocked and concerned because I had heard of older people selling their beloved homesteads and dying immediately after. The loss of all the memories or the idea of going into an assisted living situation with a different lifestyle can become instant death.
But my Mom’s mantra was always “Move On” and lucky for me I didn’t have to deposit her in any elder “facility” as she was already happy living with me part of the year in Arizona. Now it would be full time.
The good news was nothing in the Japanese home translated out West. Thus, she knew her house would have to be an “EVERYTHING Must Go” fire sale!
Many of our friends insisted this would be a sad and lonely process for my mom and me. It was not. In fact, it was exhilarating for her (a bit of a mental and physical marathon). As for me — I was more horrified at a lot of the real estate/estate sales people we encountered. But finally, I was grateful that my mom packed her small storage pod for transport herself and split as quickly as she could.
By the way, I am blessed with a mother who is sharp and strong and fiercely independent. When she put the house up for sale, she didn’t want any signage on the lawn or balloons announcing any Sunday showings. We interviewed many real estate professionals and we knew we were “quirky clients.”
Meanwhile, we were extremely aware that all around our neighborhood, every house was “For Sale.” And not just now, but for the last 6 years. We had heard that these big mansions had been set with $7 million dollar price tags and some were “reduced” down to $2, or even $1.7 million. Real estate people told us the Main Line housing market was “tricky” or “squishy.” How about “Depressed?”
After all, who wants to live in the Eastern brutal winters or hazy, hot and humid summers? Everyone is beholden to giant maintenance bills, including landscapers, leaf blowers, snow blowers, pothole fillers, generator electricians, etc. Most of the people on the Main Line go to Florida in the winter and the Jersey Shore in the summer — to get away from all this. They may stay 14 days out of the year in this area.
Also, cities like Austin, Nashville and even Philadelphia are now the hot “go-to” places to live. Old people don’t want to live in the suburbs anymore and young people much rather gravitate to Urban environments as well.
Suburban living is over with the Millennial generation. Even the McMansions of the 2002 era are kind of passé. Meanwhile, my mom had not updated her house with stadium-sized closets, indoor pool or iPad high-tech controlled alarm and lighting systems. She had a vintage “Mad Men” Japanese Soaking Tub in a bathroom, and the same 60-year-old fixtures and the same refrigerator for the last 50 years. But she kept the place maintained and pristine. Imagine … no mold or termites.
We interviewed at least 6 real estate agents who were either ex-pilates instructors or members of some South Philly Mob. “Hookers and Thugs” is how one neighbor described them.
A typical odd real estate episode happened to me one morning while I was walking out of my driveway. A woman wearing an “Arizona” T-shirt and walking an apricot standard poodle (I own one as well) stopped to chat with me. She asked me about my house and if it was for sale. I said yes, and she immediately got on her cell phone. In two minutes her contractor/real estate husband was in my driveway with slicked back hair and four gold chains around his neck. He quickly walked through the house and insisted he would buy it for a ridiculously slashed price and he would add a second floor onto the roof. “Ranch homes out here don’t sell,” he told me. Were we a “ranch home?”
I ended up showing him, his wife, and their dog to the door. “Remember, call me if you don’t get the price you want,” he yelled over his shoulder. What a set-up that whole performance was for them … and for me! But desperate times call for outrageous measures!
Eventually, I noticed one real estate name on a lot of neighborhood signs, Lavinia Smerconish. Many people recommended her to us as THE real estate “IT” gal. One acquaintance said “She gets the job done, especially for problem sales.” Were we a problem sale? Who knew?
One thing my mom and I agreed on was we wanted to get out in six months. We knew that houses that stayed on the market too long get a bad “unsalable” reputation. Plus we had our Arizona house waiting. And most of all, we didn’t want to end up like “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale whirling around our Grey Gardens living room with our sweaters wrapped around our heads and not knowing what would happen to us.
The day after I called Lavinia, she came to our door. I had a hard time remembering how to pronounce her name, so I called her “Lasagna Smirnoff” right to her face! She laughed, the name stuck, and we were off and running.
She sat down and told us the truth. Our house might be a tough sale since we needed a “particular buyer.” She suggested “a gay couple or a rich monk.” She sounded more like a therapist or a matchmaker than a real estate broker. But it was clear she knew her stuff and she wasn’t doing pilates training on her off hours. Most of all, we trusted her (by the way, her husband is popular CNN talk show host Michael Smerconish — they are a hard working couple).
We met Lavinia in July and our house was “settled” and sold by August to “the right buyer.” Ironically, my mother met the new owner accidentally on her street (he was a neighbor). Lavinia followed up and it turns out the buyer was a “yogi” who loved traveling to ashrams all over the world and was looking for his own “retreat.” I suppose he could use it as his “man cave” with his isolation tanks, he could “flip” it, or he could level it. Who cares! His check cleared and we felt lucky!
He took all of her Buddha and Ganesh statues, and Briggs Auction took our furniture. We did call Angela Hudson, the fabulous Senior Vice President of Sotheby’s Mid-Atlantic Region for the last 35 years. She looked over our small “art collection” and admitted she would try her best in submitting our few “pieces” to auction. We listened respectfully as she told us we were not Brooke Astor or Alfred Taubman and to have patience. After all, Sotheby’s isn’t into “pieces,” but collections. She ended up performing beautifully for us.
After all, we were not Cornelia Guest, who recently consigned her family’s silver, artwork, furniture, and porcelain to Sotheby’s. Even Cornelia had a word about “parting” with family objects for sale: “It just pulls at your heart in a way you never expect.” In her next book she said, “Will contain a family memoir partly based on the surviving scrapbooks and albums.” Nice thought, but will anyone really care? Mom and I dumped all our scrapbooks and most photos — after we perused them.
Meanwhile I appreciated Angela Hudson’s incredible insight and honesty. She was the first to warn us that furniture was a dead end unless it was a Stickley or an Eames design. And the best connection Angela did provide us with was Atelier Art Service who came to wrap and ship the Wayne Thiebaud portrait. They were responsible for the recent monumental move at the Barnes Foundation Collection. It was an astonishing wrap-up to watch. They came in elegant uniforms and white gloves and handled the painting with such care and finesse I was ready to book them to wrap and deliver me (to wherever) when I die!
Once we realized we had a month left to pack up and leave, we got the word out to as many “liquidators”, antique dealers, and flea market enthusiasts as we could. We were given names of many estate sale people. Some showed up for a few nickel and dime purchases, and many made appointments and never appeared.
We soon realized that next to the Goodwill or “Got Junk” we would have to give it all away. Which my mother was only too willing to do. I, on the other hand, was in a state of shock — where was the multi-million dollar “killing”? Where was the giant family heirloom payday?
Before my mom’s gardeners and maids and handymen came in for the final clean out out (even my distant cousins passed on any “drive-by” memento “pick-ups”), there was one dealer who did make multiple visits and filled me in on the estate sales scene! He was John Coyne of Main Line Precious Metals. He gave me the brutal lowdown on “value” today; “You should save as little as possible unless it is Civil War or WWI or WWII memorabilia. Also, Nazi collections and really old costume jewelry have some interest. But gold and diamonds and good vintage clothes are almost all done at high end auctions.”
He assured me that all he thought about when he examined a house was “how quick can I turn this stuff and to whom.” He said, “Millennials hate sofas and all oriental rugs. Auction warehouses are filled to the ceiling with that crap that nobody wants … Millennials are all about less is more, Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel! Plus they know nothing about taste or style. They never grew up on Bloomingdale’s designer decorated show rooms.”
He also told me the new generation is very transient. “They are not into creating a base-camp house. They want to stay on the move — light and easy.” He even felt the established people “with lotsa money are not buying like they used to. They have everything they want already.” Topping out spending is over. As for flea markets and eBay, “They just saturated the market and added to the de-valuing of most things.” (Good because we didn’t want to sell on Craigslist or open an eBay account — we were in a hurry to get it “Done and Won”).
Coyne explained to me that the big trend is buying things for “re-purposing” — that means buying objects to turn them into something else. A cheap shelf unit can become a pantry.
The biggest problem, says Coyne, is everyone (me included) fantasizes that they might get an “Antique Roadshow” million dollar hit. “They think somewhere in their house is that billion dollar treasure. But even Antique Roadshow isn’t Antique Roadshow anymore.”
He told me Navajo rugs used to go for $1500. Now he’s lucky to get $450. Also, most American Indian turquoise jewelry has “cooled.” “All of Fiestaware is a joke – you can buy the knock-offs at Target.” He cautioned me “holding onto something cause it will one day be valuable is a joke. Buy it and sell it to the first bidder or give it away. Time is not on anybody’s side anymore.”
As for the new global market? The Arabs, Chinese, and Russians are into land or real estate, not objects. “They are not into American treasure hunting. They have their own history to scour.” Look at what happened to Joan Rivers‘s $28 million-dollar New York City penthouse. It was bought and ripped to shreds by Muhammad bin Fahd. It was reported that all of Joan’s multi-million dollar crystal chandeliers, gilded walls, marble end tables and Marie Antoinette furniture were replaced with a minimal Holiday Inn interior. Rivers used to live in her apartment full time — Fahd will only use it twice a year as a pied-à-terre for his friends.
The final week my mother packed and sealed every single carton herself. She ended up giving every spoon, paper clip, and junk drawer contents away to some meaningful person in her life.
It became an incredible experience for my mother at this stage of her life. Her “Rare and Used” book dealer sobbed in her driveway as she drove away with my mother’s beloved book collection. Her landscaper bowed down on his knees in prayer when she gave him her favorite rake (he also get every flat screen TV in the house).
No doubt my mom will get a crown in heaven for doing it “her way.” She didn’t “make out” — she gave her sanctuary all away — or maybe she gave it all back!
When people came to say goodbye to my mother, she was jubilant and relieved. She said to everyone, “This house owes me nothing. I got a meaningful lifetime out of it. I bought things because I loved them, and they were aesthetically pleasing to me at the time. I never thought of what anything was worth or the increased value of anything. I never cared about any of that. I had such a wonderful time acquiring all of it. Now I can release it all and move on. At my age, you gotta know when to hold it, and know when to fold it.”
And like Nixon waving his peace sign goodbye to the White House in 1974 — we boarded the plane and never looked back.