Goodbye, Stranger | A Beautiful Bird in a Dirty House

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a silver dress with a jeweled neckline

Photo illustration | Charlotte Hsu

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Early on in his career as an appraiser, George Armbruster was combing through a squalid, grime-filled home when he came across a surprise: an antique print depicting a bird.

The house was “so filthy dirty, so smoky” that the details of the image were very difficult to see, Armbruster said.

The client told him to throw the portrait out. But Armbruster thought it might be worth something, so instead, he took it to a local antique dealer who bought the piece for $350.

Only later did Armbruster discover what the bird was really worth.

It turned out to be a much-coveted original Audubon print, with the signature of the artist hidden by the frame. As Armbruster remembers it, the illustration later sold for thousands of dollars at a major auction house.

The family wasn’t upset, he said, but the anecdote highlights one of the most difficult parts of an estate sale operator’s job, and one in which even experts make mistakes: determining what things are worth.

“We research and research, and try to find out and to get a value on [every object],” said Armbruster, co-owner of Sales by George, one of the region’s pre-eminent liquidation companies. “We rarely guess — only when we can’t find out or don’t know. And then, of course, we guess high to protect the client.”

Given the groundwork, errors like the one with the Audubon print are rare, especially now that Armbruster has been in the business for many more years, he said.

An object’s value depends on a hodgepodge of qualities. Clear Fostoria wine glasses command a higher price than newer, colored versions, said Armbruster’s manager, Connie Cunliffe. Kittinger, a brand of Buffalo-made furniture, is in high demand. Old Victorian marble-top tables, difficult to unload in Buffalo, “sell like hot cakes in Texas,” so that’s where Armbruster ships them, he said.

Here are some of the extraordinary items that he and his staff have appraised and sold over the years: a saxophone that a New York City musician traveled to Buffalo to purchase; a church-style pump organ that had to be broken down into pieces before sale; a vast collection of political campaign buttons belonging to Rick Snowden, former Western New York strip club proprietor.

Once, the owner of an Italian restaurant bought a vintage Rolls Royce for $10,000. He paid in cash, and the money smelled like tomato sauce, Armbruster said.

Some of the most memorable sales involve objects that possessed an air of mystery, like the beautiful bird print in the filthy home. What was something so precious doing in a place so grim? Hidden away in that dark, dirty dwelling, it looked as if it had been neglected for years.

Cunliffe, Armbruster’s manager, tells another story, this one about a woman’s unused wedding gifts.

“I don’t know what happened to [her husband], but whatever happened, they weren’t together for very long, and I think because of that, she chose not to use any of her items,” Cunliffe remembers.

The presents, from the 1950s, included kitchenware, linens and bedding, all being opened for the first time since the woman took a peek at them around the time of the marriage, Cunliffe says.

Wedding gifts, brand new.

A $17,000 print in an ugly house.

After years in the estate sale business, both Armbruster and Sandra Ziemer, a competing appraiser, say they have seen all manner of marvelous objects stashed away in basements and attics.

A beautiful coat hangs in a closet. An expensive painting is never hung. Sets of polished silverware sit in drawers, never getting the chance to pierce a slab of tender steak, or to spoon up ribbons of sugary ice cream.

On the subject of neglected treasures, Armbruster and Ziemer offer the following wisdom: Use your fine things, they said. Eat dinner on your most beautiful china. Wear your most exquisite dress. In the end, an object unseen and unused is really worth nothing at all.

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