It started with charity. A local art patron’s estate contents were listed for online auction, with the proceeds benefitting a couple of arts groups, including the local opera company. I registered at the auction site. It’s for charity, I told myself as I bid on several lots of vintage rhinestone jewelry.
Those of you who have followed my Hat Project blog have seen me wear many vintage rhinestone pieces. They are a weakness (I have many vintage weaknesses). So I bid. And, as I was outbid, bid again.
When the cost grew beyond what I wanted to pay, I let those rhinestones go to another arts lover. But I was hooked on the online auctions.
Every time I get an auction email, I look it over for interesting items. I often have to talk myself down from bidding on items I have no purpose or room for, like this ornate epergne featuring merpeople.
With every estate sale, I marvel at how much you learn and don’t learn from the objects people keep. One estate sale had lot after lot of watches, making me wonder about the person who amassed the collection. Why did watches interest her? Were they decorative, or was she simply interested in time itself? Another sale had two or three sets of china, plus two sets of Christmas china. The family must have entertained a lot—or maybe the owner hoped they would. What about the person with the racist figurines of black cooks? Did the person display them, or keep them hidden in a box?
I’m consumed with curiosity about the people, trying to suss out their lives the way I try to deduce what people are making for dinner by examining the cart contents of my neighbors in the grocery store.
For my writing students, I created an exercise on defining characters through habitat and possessions using The Three Musketeers. Athos keeps mementoes of his aristocratic past. Porthos has a grand apartment (from its outside appearance) but no one has every been inside. Aramis has a house filled with religious texts, but with a courtyard garden that no one can see from the street. I point out how each fits its owner's character. And as a writer, I use a person’s home and possessions to define who they are, such as in my story "Pique Assiette."
I love the estate sales because they tell stories that are maddeningly (suggestively) incomplete, as well as because I like vintage stuff.
Since I can’t actually see the auction items in person, when I bid, I tend to be cautious. I have only bid on a handful of items, and lost out on all of them.
Until this week.
This estate sale was the estate of a collector. Some beautiful jewelry, both real and costume. Hummel figures, still in boxes. Fenton glassware. Pictures of thatched-roofed cottages at twilight. Plates with pictures of spaniels.
And some limited edition Lennox collector's plates with birds on them. They just appealed to me. I thought they would be fun to use to serve cookies to guests, or asparagus or rolls at a holiday dinner. So I bid, and though I was almost outbid by someone swooping in at the last minute, I got the plates.
They were in heavy frames built like tanks. The plates themselves, having spent their lives framed under glass, were nearly pristine.
So now I am the kind of person who owns collectible bird plates, along with three full sets of dishes (one inherited from my grandmother). A closet full of vintage hats. Far too many clothes, shoes, earrings, scarfs. Shelves of books. A beautiful decoupage cabinet designed to hold compact disks. A manual typewriter. A small box of Mercury dimes from the 1940s. A teapot that plays “Tea for Two” when you wind it up. A Nigerian beaded armchair. A vase shaped like a woman in an evening gown. Two ukuleles.
Who am I?
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Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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