Antiques Roadshow? Forget it. The sad truth about your parents’ possessions

When the boss of one of the op shops I’d been haunting rolled her eyes as I approached with another box of pre-loved miscellanery, I knew I’d reached the limit of charitable receivership.

Actually, in emptying my parent’s house, sold after dad’s death and mum’s move into care, the dissemination of the chattels of a 68-year marriage had been ongoing for years.

Knowing the day would come and knowing the mountain of booty of an antique-collecting mother who’d had a late conversion to charity shops, I’d long been smuggling out the cracked crap and unfashionable clothes in garbage bags and doing archaeological digs in the garden for lost plant pots that were never missed.

The chaos of the furniture auction room where wonderful things get sold for a song. Photo: Jenny Brown

The chaos of the furniture auction room where wonderful things get sold for a song. Photo: Jenny Brown

But nothing made a dent in what had purportedly been a downsized household’s holdings.

And I’m sure that with so many baby boomers doing the same for their elders, the number of who has tripled since 1971, I’m not alone in schlepping endless crates of household detritus and soliciting, begging even, for new custodians of fine furniture and vainly attempting to sell off “the good stuff”.

Ha! You gotta laugh because the resolution of the inter-generational “heirlooms” does not, in Australia today, generally resolve in a happy Antiques Roadshow story and a fistful of dollars.

What had looked so pretty in a warm family house; what had not been claimed for sentimental reasons by senior children, or, for practical reasons by two grandchildren fortuitously moving house and needing tables, cutlery, chairs and chests of drawers; what had not been foisted on any passer-by who’d betrayed the merest interest in any piece, turned out to be, more or less, valueless and an expensive problem to get out of the house.

French furniture auction in Richmond, Victoria. Photo: Darrian Traynor.

French furniture auction in Richmond, Victoria. Photo: Darrian Traynor.

The one attempt at selling a lovely couch on line had resulted in “Elle” messaging that “so sorry” she couldn’t come in person but really wanted the items. Could I just fill the included PayPal link with my bank account details? Yeah sure! I did recognise a phishing scam. Elle of Nigeria!

When we’d gotten down to the last cache of presumed valuables, my sister and I thought it prudent to take up an offer of a free valuation. We took pieces promoted as being super antiques and about 20 Asian and Deco and Victorian collectables, including porcelain packed virtually in feathers. But we found only two things might limp over $100 “on a good day”.

Two Japanese vases we had no idea existed until excavating them from the back of a cupboard were worth $300 to $500 each. Great grandma’s Dresden figurines? $100 the pair. Grandma’s porcelain basket we understood as possibly priceless? $30.

We had to laugh at the Chinese figurine that may have been saleable had Dad not repaired it with black tape that we’d not noticed until the expert did. “Oh, and it’s cracked here too.”

In consulting the professionals the recurring phrase was: “Five years ago you might have gotten something for these.”

Christian McCann auction off items at a French furniture auction in Melbourne, Victoria. Photo: Darrian Traynor

Christian McCann auction off items at a French furniture auction in Melbourne, Victoria. Photo: Darrian Traynor

When we sent eight “brown furniture” items to a weekly auction room: the Victorian cedar sideboard, the bevelled bureau mirror, the crystal decanters (so much crystal Mum!), the sweet little secretarie, it was, “five years ago they might have been worth something”.

We’ll get “something” but the message was that the total probably won’t cover the cost of the moving van, plus the 20 per cent commission, plus the photography costs.

What happened five years ago that hollowed appreciation of beautifully made old furniture was a combination of new players in the resale market (eBay, Cash Converters, the Salvos et al) and the changing tastes of a populace moving from roomy character houses to small apartments where cabinetry is either built in or the decor tone asks for modern and minimal. IKEA can help out there.

Now the best resellers are mid-century pieces that still suit such settings.

By strange coincidence the other Saturday in the small lane where my parents used to live, three of the four households were in the throes of the same dispersion exercise. The lane was clogged with moving vans.

Margaret was able to sell the eight seater, hand-crafted dining setting off the internet for $250 and the buyer was happy to take anything else she was giving away.

Rupert and Patty had been so shocked at the prices they’d gotten for their antiques at auction they gave away their piano to the people across the road. We resolved to call in the Brotherhood to help move the last of our unmoveables.

It’s been a melancholy job with a few mirthful moments. But at least it’s done and the house now echoes with the emptiness of an era that’s gone.