Tolstoy once asked: how much land does a man need? I pondered this as we wandered the homes of the rich, and then the very, very rich. To be honest, I have deep and abiding distrust of the wealthy, a tooth-grinding annoyance at their excesses. Perhaps this is a failing on my part, but it’s there, it’s there.

This was a strange, strange weekend, indeed, plumbing the depths of the homes of the people like you and I, and then the homes of people who think nothing of a six hundred dollar coffee set.

To make matters most intriguing, our trip took us into the 9,000 square-foot home of the scion of a local beverage magnate, a tremendous, gray edifice that rose like a small museum in the Lowry Hill district of town, a place filled with the cold, cold homes of the rich. And, if my hunch is correct, of the sad souls who, like Charles Foster Kane before them, never figured out that you can’t fill the void of loneliness with the treasures of the world.

Our trip spanned Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We were joined on Friday by visiting dignitary Mike Haeg, and on Saturday by ESC special guest stars Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson. Jancie and I hit a pair of sales by ourselves on Friday, the first a rather dull affair in Minnetonka not worth talking about. The second, was in Plymouth, and it proved to be very intriguing.

But first, children, a warning: beware of lampreys. Pray, what are lampreys? If you look at the photo on the right, you’ll see it–the estate sale in question is the yellow sign on the right side of the photo, the lamprey is the other sign. This is a garage sale, run by someone so monumentally lazy and opportunistic that they won’t bother to even run an ad in Craigslist. No, these dopes read of a sale going on in their hood, open up their filthy basement, and make a couple of signs saying “estate” sale, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. I have fallen prey for these things many times, so don’t make my mistake, people. You will find nothing but junk.

The actual sale, however, was a doozy. A woman who collected antiques–and we are talking Antiques Roadshow antiques. Such as that “Chinese” canopy bed you see at the top, which was the price of a new motorcycle. My first indication that this was a person in serious disconnect was the statue of a little black jockey holding a lamp. I won’t say “African-American”, because no human has skin of black paint. This insulting step back in time fits, in my mind, with someone collecting Nazi memorabilia… and more on that later.

I’ll have to admit that the house did have that certain “House on the Rock” quality, though much more organized and reflecting the owner’s uh, great “taste”. I overheard someone say she was an “excellent horsewoman”, and clearly had a ton of money at her disposal. The walls were filled with old needlepoint, like this very cool Alice in Wonderland display to the right. Every inch of available space held some incredible antique, the walls crammed with Picasso prints, needlepoint, the mantlepiece displaying this hat, with its bright pink feathers, one that I would certainly buy, and then wear about town, would the price have not been $150 (you can see some choice boobs in the Picasso behind the hat.)

There was a tea set for $600, the needlework was in the hundreds of dollars, jewelry, China, furniture, all of it filling this home like a museum… and as cold and distant as one as well. I’m not complaining because I wanted that hat for cheap–I would, because I’m as much a collector as anyone–but because nothing is to be used, touched, smelled, enjoyed. How do you drink coffee out of a delicate fox pattered coffee set that costs nearly a grand? I break half my glasses and mugs, and I’d feel agitated and nervous just handling this stuff.

The answer is that you don’t use this swag, you look at it. Call me a pink socialist if you want, but this is the type of stuff I’d love to see in a public (or private) museum, where its history can be documented, and we can learn about the item’s provenance, admire the Picasso, along with hordes of other curious people. Instead, this woman got to walk amongst her collections, probably had to hire just the right cleaner to make sure they had a delicate touch, and had only the finest guests on hand, people of taste who could admire this bounty, without actually using or even touching any of it. We left, of course, with nothing.

With Mayor Haeg, we ventured to a strange estate sale in the Seward neighborhood, run by the family, or friends of the family. It was kind of a run-down sale, not a lot of good stuff, but I will say it was refreshing to enter into the home of a guy who actually used the things he owned. This was the home of a man named James, a former Minneapolis police officer, and a place where you could feel like you could relax and eat in the living room with everybody, and put your beer down without a coaster. We bought a couple of beat-up chairs and I found a softball bat. Between this and a St. Paul sale not worth describing, we found a few books, including the Mayor’s find of a 1937 Rand-McNally Atlas (“to help me find the old roads on my motorcycle”), Ripley’s Believe it or Not #22 (“I like exercising my right as an American by choosing not to believe…”) and a thing called The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance.

The next day was gorgeous, sun and sixty degrees, a perfect day for some sales with Colin and Shanai. Well, there were three in Minneapolis all worth talking about, and one in Edina that was nothing more than a junky, mildew reeking garage sale that we’ll skip.

The first ended up being the last, on Colfax Avenue, and as we approached at 9:30, everyone let out a groan at the long line out front. So instead we hightailed it to Garfield Avenue South, which, according to the ad , involved, “GOOD TASTE”.

I’m going to break from my tradition of not mentioning company names to say that this was a sale run by Muirfield Associates, and I’m saying that because this is a company that seems to believe that superior customer service is as important as running a sale well. That’s not a small thing, people. The staff is so damned friendly I could just sit and yak with them all day. They seem to choose sales in town, in nicer, older homes, filled with strange and delightful stuff–reasonably priced, and they work at making the sale run like a well-oiled clock. Estate sales are fun, but when someone does them as well as this, they’re just transcendant.

There were lots of fun, odd toys (like Mr. and Mrs. Destitute, above left), and some good kitchen stuff, all of this spread around a bright and sunny house. Clearly priced, laid out, room to roam, and, as I noted, with knowledgeable friendly staff to snicker at your jokes. Forgive my geekiness, but we also found some swank sheets for ten bucks. Look, if I don’t buy my sheets for $200, then I can drink more beer. It’s really not that hard to understand.

But I digress. I bought some dumb shit, let me tell you. This is where the questions begin, the nagging doubts. Am I any better than the lady whose antiquey house I just complained about at length? I bought books I don’t need, Life magazines I’m going to read and then recycle, one of those wooden toys that are two sticks you squeeze and then a monkey does a flip, and the Hendrik van Loon Wide World Game from Parker Brothers. Yes, I want to play that game, preferably with Mr. Haeg and his family in Mt. Holly. It’s beautifully designed, rare, celebrating the fledgling art of world travel (it’s from 1933.)

I guess I justify this stuff by using it, and allowing others to use them, so that we can build our little community. I enjoy delving into the past, touching these items, really using them. But that’s dangerously close to rationalization, no?

From there, we drove again by the home on Colfax (still a line!), and then it was off to the enormous home in Lowry Hill. I don’t know architecture to save my life, except to say the place was big. Too big. 9,000 sqare feet? I don’t care if you have twenty kids (which they didn’t), that’s simply too much. We went around the side of this place (“the servant’s entrance,” Janice quipped), and removed our shoes, no surprise, but then when we saw how filthy the white carpeting was, it turned out to be an odd request.

We found nothing here. I’m still not sure if this was an estate sale, or just a need to purge stuff so that they could buy more stuff. Everything seemed cheap, 90s-style furniture, sporting goods no one would want, games you’d find anywhere, a Wurlitzer juke box with broken glass, and not much else. Lots of marble floors, and space, space, space. Four floors, wide stairs, with enough giant rooms to have a touch football league play every Sunday. Every bedroom and sitting room and game room had a big hole in the wall with cables hanging from it, a place for a great big TV, and I could imagine the whole clan, separated like drops of water in a pool of oil, watching their own shows, ignoring one another in the acres of excess. And of course, I heard again and again shoppers on the phone, buying nothing but breathlessly telling their friends that they “simply must see this house!”

And this: apparently, the estate sale company was so in love with the gent’s high-end clothing, they were trying to charge $40 for a pair of used corduroy pants. $200 for a used jacket. Sheesh.

By the time we all emerged, shaking our heads and happy as clams to live in neighborhoods with human beings and warm, inviting homes, got into our car and headed south, the Colfax home was open again. We’re getting a bit long-winded here, so I’ll just say that this wasn’t really a diggers sale, as we’d originally thought (stuff was piled in front of the windows, usually a sure sign), and was a weird mix of junk, broken crap, books and clothes that reeked, and then some beautiful antiques, priced for dealers only (like that lamp, one of a pair, at $400.) This is one place that had also, in the display case where the swankier stuff is sold, some Nazi coins and medals. I’d have taken a photo, only I was afraid that such a thing would destroy the soul of my iPhone.

I’m not really kidding about that last part.

Sunday, Janice and I hit another sale here in St. Louis Park, where I found a cashmere coat and more books. Two items of note: this is a soup warmer, from the Heinz company, a beautiful kitchen item of no purpose whatsoever, Bakelite handle, beautiful chrome, to heat a can of Heinz stews or soups (right). There you go.

Then there was the “mangler” (left), a machine used to iron tablecloths. No big deal, until a guy laughd and said “My God I haven’t seen one of these in–you know, my Pop got my Mom one of these for her birthday, put it at the end of the street with a string attached, and had her chase it down. When she got to the surprise she was so burned up she didn’t talk to him for a month! He ended up using it, and loved it!”

Happy birthday, Ma. In the end, Colin and Shanai found only a coffee grinder for their office. Janice and I found piles of books, a nice saucepan, games, toys, too much to mention. Most of which, ahem, we didn’t need.

But apropos of that man’s lively story about his mother, I would say that’s the other depressing thing about the estate sales of the very rich, namely, no one talks much, except to remark on the majesty of said home or collection. There’s little joy amongst the dealers, the patrons, as if the spirit of the homeowner were trapped, trapped along with their many possessions.

Sad, so sad. It gives me shivers even now, for “there but for the grace of God” works both ways–I am glad not to have been born rich. As I think back on the 9,000 square foot home, nearly 9 times the size of my house (which I think is too big), I was reminded of poet Abel Evans’ suggested epitaph for famously excessive British architect Jon Vanbrugh. Mr. Vanbrugh left in his wake giant buildings meant only for the egregiously wealthy, marble and granite structures for Dukes and Duchesses, probably as empty as a tomb.

Under this stone, reader, survey
Dead Sir John Vanbrugh’s house of clay.
Lie heavy on him, Earth! For he
Laid many heavy loads on thee!

As Colin mentioned, “homes like that make me happy to have my little run-down apartment in Seward.” Amen, brother, amen.



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  1. First Lady says:

    Can’t wait to play the Wild World Game in Mt. Holly some night! :)

  2. Peter Schilling Jr. says:

    Same here! And actually, this might be something Autumn could play as well…

  3. Colin says:

    When my mother was a child, her family had a practice of Sunday morning drives through Denver’s rougher neighborhoods, so that they could gain some perspective on their humble middle-class existence. Yesterday’s stroll through that 9,000 square foot behemoth had a similar effect on me. It reminded me that while no amount of money in the world can buy you happiness, we can all invest in our creative and community assets and live richer, more fulfilling lives for it. Thanks for having us along for the ride, Peter, we thoroughly enjoyed it!

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