Bats in the Belfry, Angels in the Attic

You would think,  among the 33 lamps I found while cleaning out and renting my mother’s house, that at least one would have contained a genie! As the sampling here shows, they did appear to be that sort of lamps.

But alas, no genie appeared.

Perhaps I didn’t rub hard enough?

Frankly, I was reluctant to rub or stir too much. As often happens when people get Alzheimer’s, the house had suffered considerable neglect. The cobwebs, the dust, the deceased lizards and several one-and-one-half-inch-long dead cockroaches were both creepy and contra-indicated for someone with dust allergies and asthma.  I hired a cleaning service.

Cranberry glass is supposed to valuable, or at least collectible...

But what of the purported treasure in that house? What of all the times mom enjoined me to keep her three sets of china “in the family forever.” (Huh? I have no children. I live a few miles from the San Andreas fault.)

What of the gilded demilune chest, standing tiptoe on tiny feet, filled with dozens of jade and ivory elephants? The antique books? The treadle sewing machine? The colored glass in hues of blue, turquoise, amber, green and cranberry?

China and more china! Blue willow, Welsh copperware and a whole set Haviland Limoges cornflower and wheat pattern china. Unfortunately, it was too used to be of much value, and demand for collectibles has dropped.

Antiques, Americana and the Wild West are not really part of my design vocabulary – not my thing. My style runs more to Barcelona chairs than to bootjacks and hobnob glassware.

Still, it was my job to sort out the house, and my mother’s collection-mania. Somehow.

Even before her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, my mom was eccentric. She named the spiders in her house and protected their webs. She hung a stuffed witch in the kitchen and a stuffed bat in the breakfast room. (Had she owned a belfry, I’m sure she would have put it there.)

Mom intentionally kept her house dark. She had to carry a flashlight around to be able to match earrings or read the phone book. (Not one of those lamps had more than a 40 watt bulb!) And despite the volume of her collections — rabbits, teddy bears, pigs, milk glass chicken bowls, goblets, earrings, yarn, buttons, creamers, dolls, and Beanie Babies — she had the virtue of thrift. She wouldn’t want waste electricity. She saved old clothes and towels. And she usually shopped at second-hand stores.

I suspected that the “provenance” (the ownership history) of most of her “antiques” would lead to Dollar Tree or St. Vincent DePaul, but I couldn’t be sure.

The catch was that the house contained not only my mother’s possessions, but also those of my mom’s five great aunts, her parents, her husband, and her husband’s parents and grandparents. A few of those folks had money, and quite possibly, they had passed on something worthy of  Antiques Roadshow.

What the lamps failed to produce, the internet provided. Not a genie, but a firm with the improbable name of “Angels in the Attic.” (It’s bit kitschy for my taste. And for the record, I don’t believe in angels. I don’t collect little angel statues and stick them on top of my bookshelves either.)

A small portion of the herd of elephants.

Wrapping and cataloging the elephants. Oh, yeah, I had a cast on my hand for two broken fingers during all this cleaning and furniture moving!

Brian and Anastasia are a husband and wife team who have an interesting business: they stage, advertise and host “estate sales” for folks who need to clear out entire homes. They have differing areas of expertise, and each of them has a little black book stuffed with the names of collectors, buyers, antiquarians, decorators, and appraisers.

For a person asking “who you gonna call?” it’s great to have the option of calling someone who is connected.

Confronted by the mountains of furniture, antiques, collectibles and junk in my mom’s house, I had no idea of where start! Despite the fact that I was once married into a family that ran a British antiques business – and thus know about Tobies, horse brasses and copper bed warmers – I still felt unqualified to sort the gold from the dross.

For example, my mom insisted that the gilded demilune in the living room was genuine and dated from 1700. She insisted the elephant herd inside the demilune was priceless, and that the humble sugar chest in the bedroom was “worth a fortune”. I suspected otherwise.

I turned to the internet and first called an appraiser, letting her know that I wanted to her to let me know what things worth, and that I would not allow her to buy anything.

Mom's house before the cleanup. The neighbors asked when she was going to trim the trees. Her answer, "Never."

The amount of rubbish that came out of just the back yard. Photo taken at 5 am - that's when gardeners start to work in Phoenix, where the midday temperature can be 110 degrees.

What it looked like after my brother Gene and I got done.

This is a wise procedure in most cases. Unscrupulous dealers will low-ball good pieces and then turn around and sell them for a handsome profit. But it left me with all that stuff still on my hands.

The cleaning service, at my request, dragged 12 garbage bags of stuff out of the kitchen for the garage sale before Brian and Anastasia ever arrived. (The two of them wished we hadn’t done this, but I’m still sure that it was all everyday stuff: pots and pans and Tupperware. I told the cleaners, “If it’s edible, throw it out. If it’s not, stick it in the garage for the garage sale.”)

My brother and I, with the help of good neighbor Troy, actually had 11 days of garage sales! At the end, I still had to hire a guy with a truck to go take a mountain of miscellany to the dump, and I advertised free items on Craigslist. Luckily for me, some kindly thief stole eight garbage bags of old clothes and linens that I had left out on the porch one night.

But back to the Angels in the Attic.

Brian, it turned out, had a background in weapons and military antiques. The Colt .45 that was handed down to my step-father from the Texas side of his family – a firearm colloquially known as the “Peacemaker” and the “gun that won the West” – was probably the most valuable item in the house. (I gave it, as a thank-you, to across-the-street neighbor Troy, who was mom’s go-to guy for a whole series of crises prior to her emergency move.)

Anastasia not only knew the value of the Eastlake chairs, the silver flatware, the Victorian-era Limoges china and the antique dolls, she also knew who would be interested in buying them. While we didn’t have enough – or good enough – stuff for an estate sale, we did have a whole series of buyers. Thanks to Anastasia and her little black book, they came to the house one by one, handing over cash for antique books, war medals and old photos, as well as the demilune and the sugar chest.

The demilune was, as I suspected, a reproduction. It dated not from 1700, but from around 1900. But it was a good reproduction, worth hundreds, not thousands, but we were happy to have the money. At some point, mom may need round-the-clock care for her Alzheimers. Anastasia found us a buyer.

Anastasia also found a buyer for that sugar chest – the one that was worth “a fortune.”

At current prices, a fortune turns out to be about $300.

Correction! That’s what Anastasia originally gave us from the sale she made for us. After the buyer took the sugar chest home and looked at it in good light (something sadly lacking in my mom’s house), he thought it was a much better piece than he had originally thought. Unbeknownst to me, he called Anastasia and told her about this, and made arrangements more appropriate to the integrity of their relationship.

Next morning, Anastasia presented me with a good bit more money, an explanation, and an apology.

This tale ends with several lessons and morals:

  1. Phoenix is different from San Francisco. Neighbor Troy, who is studying to be a police officer, repeatedly cautioned me about letting strangers in the house, about trusting folks and about theft. Several times, he warned me, “this is the Wild West.” He was right about things getting stolen, but he didn’t realize how helpful I would find the loss of all those garbage bags filled with linen and old clothes. (I was not happy about the fact that a con man forged a title and stole my mother’s whole darn house, but that’s another story.)
  2. Good neighbors do exist, and nice guys do get rewarded. I feel really good about giving that Colt Peacemaker to Troy – and I don’t even want to know what it’s worth. I wouldn’t let Troy tell me what he found out on the internet. I think justice was done in Phoenix, Arizona.
  3. Angels just might exist.  I might have been a bit premature in what I said about the angels. I suspect I may have met one. Her name was Anastasia. Her partner Brian is a pretty good guy too.

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