Are there Estate Sales in the UK? What are they called?
July 5, 2020 3:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm doing a research on an antiques project and when I came to "estate sales" all that turned up was real estate stuff. So I tried other things but it seems like there's vintage markets and car boot sales but I can't seem to find the equivalent of "invite everyone into a home and they buy stuff." Does it exist in the UK?
posted by rileyray3000 to Shopping (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The closest I've seen to this in the UK is people selling stuff they want to get rid of on the street/outside their houses, sometimes with signage in the immediate vicinity but not as extensive as the "yard sale at [location]"-type advertising I've seen in the US. This model tends to be current occupants with too much stuff wanting to part with some of their stuff, rather than selling off items from a home that is no longer occupied.

If people die with a lot of stuff in their house, the trend seems to be for whoever is responsible for the estate to either sell individual items on sites like eBay/Gumtree/Facebook, take the stuff to a car boot sale to sell, donate some or all of the items to a charity shop, haul the stuff to the dump themselves, or pay someone else to come and take all of the stuff away and do with it what they will (whether that's resale or disposal).

I've been involved in clearing out two dead grandparents' houses and we used a blend of Gumtree/word of mouth for larger items that people might conceivably want (wardrobes and other furniture mostly). Everything else that was in good enough condition (and that no one in the family wanted) got donated to a charity shop; everything that was left after that got bagged up and we either took it to the tip ourselves or we paid someone else to (either haulage with a van or by renting a skip). Our top priority in both cases was getting the houses free of crap for a quick sale, rather than maximising our financial return on the contents of the houses.

In the 30-odd years I've lived here I've never seen the US-style estate sale model of "come into this house where everything is for sale and buy anything that strikes your fancy" in the UK - I can't answer whether or not it exists in any form, but it's definitely not the norm among people I know.
posted by terretu at 3:45 AM on July 5, 2020 [7 favorites]

The couple of times this has happened to friends they took what was important to them and then invited a charity to come and take the rest to sell in charity shops - one time it was the British Heart Foundation who have a House Clearance for this.

This would be different for high value items, for one place they did get a couple of antique shop experts out to check for sure.

Back in Australia people often had garage sales for things like this, that’s something I’ve never seen in well over a decade living here.
posted by ozgirlabroad at 4:01 AM on July 5, 2020

House Clearance businesses often have shops where they sell some of the stuff they acquire while emptying houses for various reasons.
posted by skybluepink at 4:17 AM on July 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

It does indeed exist. On the high end, the big players are Sotheby’s, Duke’s, Tennants, and Bonhams. Bonhams is the only one with which I’ve had experience. There are other auction houses that deal with more modest homes and private collections.

Try these search phrases: house contents auction, estate auction, private collection auction
posted by lemon_icing at 4:44 AM on July 5, 2020

Response by poster: Just to be clear I'm talking more tag sale type stuff than auction. Where you go into the house and everything has tags on it kind of deal.
posted by rileyray3000 at 6:11 AM on July 5, 2020

Where you go into the house and everything has tags on it kind of deal.

That's a thing? Definitely not something I've ever encountered - another vote for "we don't have that here". FWIW my instinctive reaction is mild revulsion - that sounds really ghoulish, going through and pricing up the accoutrements of someone's life, in the surroundings in which it was lived. The thought's making me shudder a bit.

When I've come across the term "estate sale" in US writing, I've imagined an auction, where the furniture and effects would have been removed from the house to other premises and sold off in lots. Another little cultural misunderstanding cleared up!
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:27 AM on July 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

I’ve been to a few of these everything-has-a-tag sales when farms have gone out of business. Long time ago now though - 1980s. Consider it as the very very lowest end of the market that once existed for Sotheby’s or whoever to sell off the contents of a defunct country house to meet inheritance taxes.

Every small town has an auctioneer though. They’ll all have frequent sales of “antiques” that are sourced from wherever.
posted by rd45 at 6:38 AM on July 5, 2020

That's a thing?

There's even a song about it.:
Going through dead people's houses
Wonderful things they have collected
Open the drawers and trunks and closets
Don't leave a corner uninspected

I'll head for the kitchen you check out upstairs
Old post cards and pens and blue Fiesta Ware
Shaving mugs and winged eyeglasses, giant plastic pins
Linen suits and flowered dresses, I'm so glad we got in
posted by octothorpe at 6:58 AM on July 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

It's not a thing in the UK.
posted by essexjan at 10:08 AM on July 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think you should look at car boot sales (roughly an American flea market). They aren't really a substitute for estate sales - they serve more as a substitute for a yard or garage sale in the US, but to my understanding estate sales are garage sales writ large.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 10:25 AM on July 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yeah, in the UK this is mostly taken care of by house clearance companies to my knowledge. The family take anything they particularly want for themselves and/or think might be valuable, and then call in a company that clears the house through some mixture of selling off valuable things and taking other things to the dump.

Not sure how the finances work - I've always assumed that you pay the house clearance company to clear the place, and if they happen across something valuable they keep the proceeds of that too, but that's just my assumption. There are certainly some second hand shops that - judging by the age of the furniture and knick-knacks they sell - seem to get most of their goods from house clearances.

Garage sales and car boot sales are more about people clearing out some of their own possessions and making a bit of cash in the process.
posted by penguin pie at 10:36 AM on July 5, 2020

that sounds really ghoulish, going through and pricing up the accoutrements of someone's life, in the surroundings in which it was lived.

Honestly, my experience has been that these sort of sales can be massively life affirming. The kids might not want dad’s drafting tools from the 60’s or mom collection of glass art, but someone from the neighborhood does, and a well run estate sale can provide real closure and continuity to a lifetime of physical possessions.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 10:54 AM on July 5, 2020 [9 favorites]

Oh, no. As a Brit, when I moved to the US and discovered estate sales I felt similarly to ManyLeggedCreature. I was horrified! There’s definitely a cultural component around privacy after death, and who should handle goods in their original “context” in the house.

People typically do want their family’s stuff to find a good home, as a box and a string and a stick and a bear describes, but not... that directly? That fast? Unless they already know you?

Even if it’s totally understood that the heirs will be selling or donating or trashing everything, strangers don’t get to see the stuff until the house has been “dismantled” (with the exception of professionals brought in from auction/clearing houses). The ultimate buyers definitely don’t get to root around the house. I recall as a child being asked to go around my grandparents’ house after my Grannie’s death to find something to remember her by. Honestly even that was framed as not a very... virtuous/pleasant thing to do? I got deathstares for running about too enthusiastically (I was very small). I still feel ambiguous about what I took, because I chose it rather than having it gifted to me. Strangers... buying things? Making offers? Nooooooope.

We do have garage sales and car boot sales, those would be like yard/trunk sales in the US. I’d be shocked to see someone setting one up after a death, though (like an estate sale, but outside). I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen. Again, it would push buttons about respect and privacy and formality.

I hope you enjoy the sales you can find! And that it was interesting to discover the cultural dissonance. I should try to attend an American estate sale now I’m over here, as you can hear they sound *wild* to me.
posted by pickingupsticks at 10:58 AM on July 5, 2020 [7 favorites]

They can be terribly depressing: a 10 cent price tag on an old box of Jell-O or a half-used box of adult diapers. But they can also be really interesting as you wonder about the person or people whose lives you're seeing. Maybe they traveled a lot. She liked sewing Christmas decorations, he fixed things in the garage, and they both loved birds.

I usually buy at least one small thing, like a pincushion or a little tchotchke, even if I didn't really find anything I wanted. Sort of an admission fee for letting me visit their house and a way for the family to know some of this stuff didn't end up in a dumpster.
posted by bink at 11:24 AM on July 5, 2020 [6 favorites]

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