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Estate Sales

Handling your parents' estate? Do your homework Add to ...

We've all seen Cinderella stories of thrifty shoppers who plucked items out of garage sales or second-hand stores only to discover years later that they were treasures worth a fortune.

Last November, for instance, a painting bought at a rummage sale for $4 and attributed to Group of Seven member Lawren Harris sold at auction in New Zealand for C$40,000.

While it's good news for the finders, it can also mean a lifetime of anguish and regret for the unsavvy people who donated or sold the items for pennies, not realizing their value.

Professional estate liquidator Cari Cucksey of the new series "Cash & Cari" says many baby boomers could fall prey to that scenario as they deal with their parents' estates, help them downsize or divide their own items through a divorce or liquidation.

"I say that the average family has about $10,000 dollars worth of stuff just laying around," says Ms. Cucksey, whose show debuts Thursday on W Network.

"A treasure - don't just give it away. Do your homework, do your research, ask an expert."

In each episode of "Cash & Cari," Ms. Cucksey goes to a home to organize the sale of an estate, research the backstory of the possessions and appraise them to find out their value. She also repurposes furniture and other treasures in the home.

She says business is "booming" as people look to move into smaller spaces to save money.

"A lot of downsizing folks calling," says Ms. Cucksey, who runs a vintage store just outside Detroit and owns RePurpose Estate Services.

"I think as people are being a little more conscious about all of the stuff that they have and wanting to liquidate and maybe generate a little bit of cash."

Younger generations also tend not to want to keep inherited treasures anymore, says Ela Szpotowicz, an estate liquidator in Vancouver.

"Older generations, they want to keep all their treasures, hoping that their kids will benefit from them," says Ms. Szpotowicz, a designer, project manager and owner of Eldi Design Ltd.

"But realistically, nobody wants the treasures - our lifestyle is completely different from our parents or grandparents."

When Ottawa resident Kaileigh Richter found out three years ago that the painting she had inherited from her grandmother over 20 years ago was a Tom Thomson work, she contacted Heffel Fine Art Auction House to sell it.

The painting fetched $475,000 and became the windfall Richter needed to go back to school.

It also gave the painting a home in which it would be better cared for.

"Once I was aware of its value, I think to some degree it made me a bit uncomfortable because I just don't live that kind of lifestyle and I couldn't provide the appropriate home for something like that," she says.

"At least it's going to be well taken care of, with any good luck. A lot of us aren't in as good a position as our parents were."

Heffel auction house specializes in handling high-profile estates and has dealt with several in the past few years, including those of Arthur Erickson, Helen Band, Theodosia Dawes Bond Thornton and Mary Breckenridge.

"For us, we're seeing boomers seeing their parents pass away and they're inheriting," says vice-president Robert Heffel.

"So there is a generational shift happening where people in their 80s or 90s who collected in sort of the golden age of art collecting in the '40s and '50s and 1960s and bought some incredible paintings by the Group of Seven or Emily Carr, those estates have come up in the last several years."

Mr. Heffel adds that the art market's been strong in recent years so there's been incentive for boomers' kids to sell their inherited works.

"When your parents bought those paintings in the '50s or '60s, they paid a few thousand dollars for them and now they're worth $50,000 or $100,000 or over $100,000 and the next generation could use that money for other things like paying down mortgages or debt."

Experts say those curious about the value of potential treasures should first hit the Internet or library to research them, and also photograph them or even videotape them. You can then either take the photographs or video into a local antique shop or send them to an expert online.

Heffel auction house accepts emailed photos through its website, and its appraisers will look at items brought into company offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. Heffel also sends experts into homes to provide a written, fair-market value appraisal.

"We do free appraisal days and there's always an occasional surprise where somebody has something quite valuable and they just didn't realize how valuable it was," says Mr. Heffel.

"We're always open and it's a good idea to check because you don't want to put something in a garage sale and sell it for $500 and it was worth $100,000, which sounds hard to believe but as we all know, it can happen."

The process of determining the value of treasures can be long and overwhelming for families, though, especially when there are many possessions.

Ms. Szpotowicz says she's met clients who spent months trying to sort estate items in their free time before realizing it was too much and calling in an expert.

"They'll call us because they just cannot deal with packing, with dealing with charities and with advertising and disposing or discarding the unwanted items. It's quite overwhelming," she says.

"It's better to have a professional to come and pack everything, label and sort it out and just deal with that."

When Ms. Szpotowicz first goes into a home to deal with the estate or to help downsize, she sorts all the house contents into categories of "keep," "sellable" and "disposable."

She then does everything from calling in appraisers and experts, to holding a house contents sale and handling documents and smaller items, like utilities, pets and plants.

For downsizing situations, she'll take measurements of the smaller space the client is moving to and provide clients with a three-dimensional, virtual floor plan of the new home so they can see which of their items will fit.

Ms. Szpotowicz also provides a shoulder to cry on when emotions run high in estate sales or downsizing situations.

Seniors in particular can be very emotional as they reluctantly shed their valuables to move to a nursing home, she says.

"Although I don't specialize in psychology, just talking to them brings them great relief," she says.

"And from experience, I know that sometimes they really want to hold on to some items and I will arrange for storage for that. It doesn't make any financial sense, but if that keeps them happy, so be it."

Ms. Cucksey, too, says she's had to become "a bit of a therapist" to families as they handle estates of loved ones and sort through items of great sentimental value.

"I really have to coddle them and hand-hold them all the way through," she says. "It is such a sensitive issue. Almost every time there are tears of some sort."

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