Goodbye, Stranger | 1,000 Porcelain Slippers

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a pair of blue-and-white China slippers

Photo illustration | Charlotte Hsu

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Several years ago, estate sale agent Charmaine Then got an invitation to visit the home of a woman in her late 80s.

The lady, who was in a wheelchair, was moving into an assisted living facility. She needed help downsizing.

Then agreed to meet the octogenarian. Before they did, the woman provided a warning over the phone: “I just want you to know that I have a China slipper collection,” she said, according to Then’s recollections.

The slipper stockpile turned out to be huge. They weren’t the fuzzy kind that people wear on their feet, but the little porcelain shoes that stores peddle as souvenirs.

The living room was filled with them. So was the dining room. There were shelves and shelves of miniature footwear — as many as 1,000 pairs.

Then’s mind drifted to the assisted care facility, where the woman would have a single room for all her things.

Worried that the lady wouldn’t be able to part with the collection, Then posed the question.

The woman’s response was swift and a surprise: “Oh, yes,” she said. There was no way she was keeping the shoes. They were not the prized possessions that they appeared to be, and the reason why would bring a smile to Then’s eyes.

Then, 53, is the co-founder and now sole proprietor of Edna Louise Estate & Household Liquidations, a Buffalo-based business she started with her sister-in-law in 1997.

Then has loved antiques and art history for as long as she can remember, and her first client was a friend: a woman whose husband was transferred to Saudi Arabia for a job. The couple lived in Eggertsville and wanted to reduce their number of belongings before heading overseas.

Then ran their estate sale, fell in love with the work, and opened her company soon after.

In the 15 years since, she has seen all manner of eccentric objects. Once, she found a totem pole in a chiropractor’s basement. She ended up sending it to Sotheby’s, where it fetched a nice price, she said. Just recently, she came across a signed letter from William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States, that appeared to be authentic.

Most discoveries are not so exotic.

More often, she’ll encounter vast collections of the same thing: Owls. Polar bears. Dolls. Fiestaware. Headvases. Hundreds of nearly identical items. It’s an every-week occurrence, Then says.

In April, she had a client with 1,500 Beanie Babies. The week before that, another local liquidator was running a sale loaded with nun-themed dolls and figurines. In February, a house in Akron, N.Y. had hundreds of hen-shaped candy dishes in varied shades of translucent glass.

Sandra Ziemer, who has been in the estate sale business in Buffalo for more than 35 years, says she has seen aggregations of just about everything — miniature sewing machines, for instance.

“It’s whatever,” she said. “You never know.”

Some people are hoarders. In March, Ziemer had a sale with about 3,500 pieces of brand-new jewelry and 1,500 pairs of ladies shoes (the life-sized kind).

They were the type of items you buy on the Home Shopping Network. There was an entire room with nothing but watches: Square watches, round watches, jewel-encrusted watches, watches with switchable straps, four identical cerulean watches with flower petals around the face.

Hoarder sales are popular with the public, but heartbreaking to see. Looming over each one is the idea that someone was living among all of these things, piled floor to ceiling, with barely any room to walk.

Even in less extreme cases, Then puzzles over why people collect the way they do.

“Do they have a void in their life?” she wonders.

One client started amassing dolls because her mother wouldn’t buy her one, “so when she was old enough to buy her own dolls, she went overboard with it,” Then says.

But sometimes, a collection isn’t a reflection of a person’s will at all.

Such was the case with the woman with the China slippers.

When Then inquired about the origin of the shoes, the lady told a story about her late husband, who often went away on business trips.

Once, when the couple was young, he returned from an excursion with porcelain slippers as a gift.

She thanked him, commenting on how wonderful they were, even though she never really liked them.

The next thing she knew, he was bringing home new pairs of tiny shoes every time he traveled.

The house began to fill with them, but she loved him and never had the heart to tell him to stop. So here they were years later, cramming the living room shelves.

The woman said she would maybe take one pair with her to the assisted living facility, but that was all.

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