Scavenger Hunt: The hunters at Prestige Estate Services are always looking for the next score

July 7 2015 STYLE WEEKLY

The bright yellow sign reads, “estate sale today,” in all caps, with an arrow pointing right. A half-block into the cul-de-sac, a two-story house is decorated with multicolored flags. The front door dons a welcome sign listing a few ground rules.

Inside the house are all of the deceased woman’s belongings that her family didn’t want. They’re on display in each room with price tags attached. Towels and linens fill the bathtubs. They’re for sale. A woman sifts through dresses hanging from wire hangers in a closet, still hanging in the bedroom where they were left. The pillows, sheets, even the mattress and bed frame — they’re all for sale.

Erin Ek, the Virginia branch manager for Prestige Estate Services, smiles behind a register in the kitchen, manning a makeshift checkout next to a table of jewelry and other pocketable items.

In-between ringing customers up, Ek keeps an eye on the dozen or so people looking through the wares. They aren’t scavengers. They’re antique dealers, vintage store owners, collectors and thrift shoppers looking for great deals.

During her time in the estate sale business, Ek has come across myriad startling items: an unused suicide note buried in a pile of stationery, a Ku Klux Klan hood from the 1930s, a rare doll that sold for $8,000 and, most recently, a German World War II hat with Nazi insignia.

“Anything can be a score,” she says. “From vintage costume jewelry to an antique hot rod. It’s all in the eye of the beholder or shopper.”

Other memorable items she’s come across include an 1894 invitation to the unveiling of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, antique photographs of a traveling circus, and a sterling silver midcentury Tiffany serving bowl that sold for $1,250.

She holds certain items for the family or sells them at auction. She disposes of other sensitive pieces, such as the suicide note or nude photos.

Every estate sale is different, she says. Sometimes people are looking to downsize. Other times a spouse or children handle the estate. When she finds something questionable, she asks herself whether it’s something the estate holder would want to keep.

“I mean … would you want to know?” she says, of what the family might discover. “It’s one of those delicate situations. Like, when you find the sexy pictures … that’s not something you want to see. So we put those aside.”

“With the suicide note,” Ek says, “there was no family left to talk to about it. But if there was family still around, we would put it in the personal pile that we collect for the family and not mention that we saw it.” The clients understand that some items are not salable, or personal, and will be disposed of when they hand over the property. Anything that isn’t personal or sold after the three-day sale is donated or disposed.

“This is a pretty good first day,” Ek says of this sale in Henrico County. Each estate sale lasts three days, Thursday through Saturday. Thursdays usually draw dealers, with no discounts or negotiations. Fridays are a mix and offer a 25 percent discount. Saturdays are the busiest. Everything is half off and negotiations get down and dirty in the final hour. The estate sale company makes a commission on each sale, depending on the amount.

Her mother provided for the family by flipping houses, taking Ek along to shop estate sales to furnish the houses before selling them and moving to the next project.

As a young adult, Ek settled into Richmond but eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she owned an online vintage lingerie company and rescued dogs. But with the cost of living there soaring, she decided to take her shop to Denver for six months on her way back East. Through her own estate travels, picking up a nightie here and girdle there, she thought about getting into the business.

When Ek saw an ad for a job with Prestige, she jumped at the opportunity. Her first job was mostly helping with pricing, but within six months, her incentives and responsibility grew. She found herself torn between this new opportunity and getting home. She gave her bosses one year’s notice, and asked if they would consider allowing her to open a branch in Richmond. They ultimately agreed it would be a good opportunity.

“I was terrified because usually when [the owners] are opening a new branch — they’re there,” Ek says. “They trusted me, so I guess that says a lot about how they view me.”

After building the Richmond clientele for the last 18 months, she says she and her team of one full-time and six part-time workers are seeing a lot of growth.

“There is word of mouth — which is great,” Ek says. “We’re really starting to make a name for ourselves out here. People are recommending us now. We also have a pretty good online presence.” Using the company website and social media to let people know about sales and available items, she says, business is steadily stacking up.

Ek has been grooming her assistant, Anna Estes, to run her own sales so the company can continue to grow throughout the mid-Atlantic. But most of all, she’s happy to be home. Her eclectic, one-story house on the cusp of Fulton Hill and Montrose Heights is decorated with items she’s purchased from estate sales through the years.

As for what keeps her going in the estate business, Ek says, it’s the thrill of the hunt: “We get so excited when we go through boxes, wondering what treasure we’ll find. It’s like Christmas every day.”

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