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Is it trash or treasure?

Downsizing calls for callous decisions about items found inside a home

January 11, 2013 

Like my mother, the Roman god Janus – for whom January is named – had eyes in the back of his head. In fact, he had an entire face on the back of his head so he could look backward and forward at the same time. This feature earned him the distinction of “god of doors.” He ruled comings and goings.

I could use some Janus juice about now. This January I am starting a job I’ve been dreading: going through my parents’ home.

My 90-year-old parents moved into assisted living in May last year.

We’ve decided to sell the home they lived in for more than 40 years. But first I must sort their possessions into callous categories: toss, donate, sell, keep, and can’t bear to look at it.

Janus, where are you? Come to think of it, I could also use the powers of Minerva, goddess of wisdom; Vesta, goddess of the home; and, for sure, Bacchus, god of wine.

Because Janus didn’t answer my call, I reached out to Miller Gaffney, one of the antique pros on PBS’s “Market Warriors.”

“I don’t know where to start,” I said.

She offered these pointers for anyone who is about to clean out an elder’s attic, basement, garage or home:

Don’t rush. “The process takes longer than anyone thinks it will,” Gaffney said. You have to organize, sort, appraise and market. “Rushing through, you could miss a treasure you didn’t realize you had, sell it for 20 bucks, and find out later it sold for a million.”

Do your homework. Ask your parents what they believe is valuable. Ask for the history and sales records of potentially worthy items. When going through a home or attic, separate items that might have value from items that don’t (that broken television).

Don’t believe all they said. Heirlooms have a way of gathering unwarranted value as their legend grows. A friend told me about a Tiffany lamp her grandmother cherished and said was worth a mint. An appraiser delivered the bad news: The lamp was a fake.

Don’t do it alone. Once you’ve decided what might have value (furniture, jewelry, artwork, porcelain, other collectibles), ask a certified appraiser to do an inspection with you to identify items worth a closer look. Then get those items appraised. (Beware of fraudulent estate sales companies, Gaffney warned. Check credentials.) Get a sense of what items are selling for on eBay.

Know the value. That will help you get a fair return at an estate sale or auction or from an antique dealer. It also can help make the fighting fair if siblings are dividing up possessions. “Often, when family members know how little something is worth, they let go of it more easily,” Gaffney said.

Not worth it. Items that family members believe have value often do not. For instance, almost no market exists for figurines. Signed and numbered prints also don’t usually fetch what owners paid, unless the artist became well-known, Gaffney said.

What to keep. The toughest call is what to keep. Consider an item’s condition, quality and lines, as well as how difficult it would be to ship it.

Beyond that, deciding what to keep is a highly personal decision. “Some people don’t want any reminders and just want to liquidate,” said Gaffney. “Some just want the cookie jar. But others have a strong emotional connection to many furnishings. You have to find your sweet spot. When it gets too emotional, step away. Take some time.”

As I go through the process and am tempted to keep too much, I’ll remember Janus, god of doors, whose domain included the gates to heaven. And there he reminded us: You can’t take it with you.

Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through

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