Wednesday, June 14, 2000

To hear experts tell it, mining for treasures is a seasonal rite that flows naturally from spring cleaning.

“We go junking at yard sales and estate sales and fix up what we find for the store,” says Richard White of Myrtle’s Mess, a Knoxville, Tenn., antiques shop where he works with owner Myrtle Fritz.

The two men have plenty of company this year as Americans head to yard and estate sales, attics and cellars with a collective vengeance, thanks in large part to the “Antiques Roadshow.”

The top-rated PBS program sends experts from city to city to put a dollar value on everything from vintage Coca-Cola stand-up Santa Claus ads that Grandpa stashed behind the boiler to Aunt Hattie’s silver service. Every so often, owners get told they got taken.

For those who aren’t trying to figure the value of family items but simply want to turn used furniture, clothes or knickknacks into cash, the yard sale is one answer.

Linda Spiciarich of the Pocket Change Investor in Elizaville, N.Y., goes to more than 100 yard and estate sales a year. As a veteran, she says she’s learned that:

• Those who show up first get the best stuff. So arrive early if you want to beat antiques dealers and collectors to the best values.

• Shop late if you want cheap. People don’t want to lug stuff back into the house and may be willing to haggle, but dicker in a friendly way that doesn’t make the seller feel snookered.

• Don’t nickel-and-dime it at the rummage sale for your church or synagogue, the children’s hospital or a favorite charity.

• Check the “free” bins. “What’s one person’s trash is another’s treasure,” she says.

Moving sales are another source of potential riches. In and around the District, for instance, veteran picker Nancy Peck reports that trade is especially good given the constant comings and goings of members of Congress and foreign-service families.

Washington-area estate sales also have become so hot that brokers offer “virtual” pre-sale look-sees via the Internet.

Indeed, the Internet has radically changed the sell-it-yourself business, from the egalitarian on-line auction house eBay to exclusive Sotheby’s.

One drawback: You don’t get to inspect the merchandise for stains and wear and tear the way you can at an in-person auction or sale, prompting Susan Grant of the National Consumers League to urge buyers to pay by credit card or buy through escrow accounts offered by reputable auction sites that clear a sale only if buyer and seller are both satisfied.

With on-line sales of all merchandise officially totaling $5.3 billion the last quarter of 1999, plenty of old-line retailers are looking to cash in on computerized auctions and flea markets.

Consider Fingerhut, the veteran Minnesota mail-order catalog firm that’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati: It started four years ago to sell overstocked or closed-out merchandise and now offers up to 4,000 products for sale on line with links to affiliated Web sites.

“We’re not a true garage sale where it’s a quarter for this and a dime for that. We’re more like a warehouse that sells new merchandise in manufacturer’s wrapping and under warranty at deep discount,” says Andysgarage manager Mike Holm.

He adds that even though “we don’t break out our sales separately as a unit of Federated, let’s say business is booming.”

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