The Art of the Sale

Running a White Goose estate sale is social work.
Abigail Cane
Abigail Cane Durell Godfrey

    Abigail Cane, the owner of White Goose Estate Sales, is pleased and amazed at the fortuitous twists her life has taken over the past decade. “If you had told me I would have been doing this 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said.
    Today her company handles the final sale of goods at houses on the South Fork that are being emptied for one reason or another. The difference between Ms. Cane’s work and the ubiquitous yard sales hereabouts is often the value of the house being emptied. If it is luxurious, the furnishings, for the most part, are equally luxurious.
However, in 2001, when Ms.  Cane moved here after Sept. 11, 2001, this line of work was not on her radar. “I was in luxury retail for a long time,” Ms. Cane, who is in her late 30s, said. “Tiffany, Brooks Brothers — I was always into high-end customer service. I think my work in staging in those stores has been extremely useful in my career.” “Staging” has become a valuable real esate practice, with brokers suggesting that it puts forward a property’s best face.
In 2006, Ms. Cane had another kind of career in mind, and went to Boston College to get a master’s degree in social work. Soon after graduation, she received an unexpected call from a detective in a small town in North Carolina.
“My father had died,” she said. She hadn’t seen him since the age of 8, “but I was his only surviving relative. I went down there to get his two dogs out of the pound, and to clean up his home.”
Her father, it turns out, had been a hoarder. “The house looked nice — it looked normal — from the street. But inside. . . ,” she trailed off. “It’s amazing that some people can live that way.”
She took it upon herself to thoroughly clean the place. Doing so was a cathartic experience. “I got to know him by picking through everything he ever touched. I got to know his life through the process. It was the greatest gift he could have given to me, because he gave me this life,” she said, referring to the new direction she took professionally.
    Along the way, she removed over 500 bags of garbage from her father’s house. “But he had treasures, too,” she said. “Cards I had sent to him; stuff about my grandparents.” Because of the “massive debt” he had accrued, Ms. Cane arranged with an auctioneer to sell everything else that wasn’t personal, including the house as well as its contents. And she had a new career.
    “I love to make a new life for things,” she said. “I think one of the best ways to recycle something is to find a new life for it.”
    Back on the East End, Ms. Cane found herself mentored by a real estate agent who had faith in her ability to stage estate sales. Her very first was at an $11 million house on Mecox Bay, compliments of Gary DePersia. Other upscale addresses have come to her in the last few years. Recent sales included a big house (you could call it either a mansion or a cottage) on Huntting Lane in East Hampton, one on Mulford Avenue in Northwest, a captain’s house on North Main Street in Sag Harbor, and a large house on East Hollow Road in the Georgica area of East Hampton.
    Ms. Cane’s background in social work comes in handy, she acknowledged, since most of the people who hire her are in crisis mode of one kind or another. “The house has usually just gone into contract and the seller has no idea what to do with all of their stuff. I tell them, ‘You can leave everything, even the food in the fridge, and the house will be broom-swept clean by closing.’ ”
    “Moving is such a stressful time for people,” she said. “Maybe they’ve lived their lives in that house with their spouse who has passed away. Maybe it’s the home where they raised their children.” She paused. “People are usually very tearful saying goodbye to their things. It’s very emotional ”
Because of this, Ms. Cane includes a policy in the contract her clients sign. “Once I start the sale, the seller has to leave it to me, to trust me with it. They can’t be around prior to the sale, during the sale, or afterward. People picking through your stuff is very personal.”
    She described the formula she uses. First, get rid of the garbage. “I get rid of anything not sellable, that I wouldn’t want to look at, that’s not pleasing to the eye,” she said. “I learned that in retail.”
Next she stages the house and everything gets a price, even the cars that some people leave behind. “I just sold a 1986 Morgan,” she said. “All of these sales require a huge amount of research.” However, she acknowledged, the prices on Friday afternoon at the start of the sale will definitely go down by Saturday afternoon at its end. “I’m known for being very flexible toward the end,” she said with a smile. “My mother calls every sale a cliffhanger. You never know what’s going to be left at the end.”
    Ms. Cane donates things that are left over to charity, “to get the seller a tax deduction,” and finally hands her client a check (after removing her commission).
    And what about her degree in social work? “This is social work,” she said. “I help my clients with the idea of letting go.”

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And the Beat Goes On . . .
    Estate sales on the South Fork are certainly not new. Ted Dragon, Alfonso Ossorio’s partner, threw perhaps the most famous one ever in 1992 at the Creeks, the 57-acre estate on Georgica Pond that the two had shared for over four decades. Longtime East Hamptoners remember a myriad of high quality Red Tag Sales over the years, although the woman who ran them now wants to remain anonymous.
    Now estate sales have become big business. Move It Out, based in Sag Harbor, runs sales of large properties from Montauk to Southampton. Others who help handle the stress of letting go of cherished possessions are Ferran and Zimmerman of Southampton, Robert Barker of Mattituck, David Markel of Mel Presents in Southold, Anne Hyndman of East Hampton, and Sisters In Charge of Centereach.
    And many East Enders know Liza Werner of Sage Street Antiques in Sag Harbor, who ran estate sales for about 25 years. “I wouldn’t take just any sale,” she said. “I had to like the people and the house.” Calling these events highly labor-intensive and challenging, she said that often, when she showed up at a house on the day of a sale, family members had already descended and “taken a lot of the good stuff.”