Drowning In Our Junk

In 2014, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese author Marie Kondo launched a massive “decluttering” craze in homes around the world. The book, released in 2011 and translated to English three years later, introduced people to the KonMari method of decluttering and organizing.

The method includes tidying by category rather than location, following a specific order, and touching every item you own to determine whether or not it “sparks joy” in your life. If it does, you keep it. If it doesn’t, out it goes.

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Kondo’s books clearly hit an international nerve. By 2017, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up had sold over five million copies in more than 40 regions and countries; 1.5 million of copies were sold in the U.S. alone. In a 2017 survey of 2,000 Americans by ClosetMaid, over half of the respondents said clutter was an issue in their home. Thirty-nine percent said they had “quite a bit” of clutter, and 31 percent admitted to having a completely unusable item sitting around the house.

All that clutter isn’t exactly good for our mental health, either. A 2013 online survey conducted by HuffPost discovered that 84 percent of stressed Americans cite home organization as a potential trigger. Further research has shown that the way you think about and describe your home can impact your health. (It’s not all bad news, though. Ironically, the same year HuffPost published their survey, another study published in Psychological Science indicates that a messy desk can stimulate creativity, giving clutterers a reason to celebrate.)

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Whatever your view of clutter is, it’s not wrong to say that many of us hold onto stuff we no longer need, whether for sentimental or practical reasons. But don’t be so quick to blindly chuck everything into a dumpster. Some things you’re holding onto might actually have long-term value: We talked to someone who unearthed an autograph from a guy named Abe Lincoln and his pals, and that same person accidentally tossed personalized autographs from a small London band called The Beatles.

But first…

What determines value?

Jacquie Denny has been in the appraisal business for over 30 years. Along with business partner Brian Graves, she co-founded Everything But The House (EBTH), an online estate sale marketplace, in 2008.

“EBTH came to be [through] two crazy, passionate people who believed in not only helping families sell their stuff for the most money they could, but to provide a service to people who are going through difficult transitions in life,” Denny says. This includes everything from a loss in the family to liquidating assets for medical needs or paying for college, among other reasons. Many collectors use EBTH to divest their collections as well.

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The majority of EBTH’s clients are age 40 and above and are downsizing or settling their estates. “When I got in the industry, the only time somebody emptied a house was when someone passed away because those generations actually stayed in their homes until they passed away,” Denny says. “The generation that is now at the upper bands of age have been lucky enough to have something such as a seniors’ community to go to.”

Now, Denny says, almost every couple in America goes through an average of two downsizes where they get rid of at least half of their possessions in their lifetime. “They do the downsize from the four-bedroom home to the two-bedroom condo or apartment in a seniors’ community, and then of course when they pass away or they get ill and go into long-term care, those children have a second property to downsize,” she says.

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For those people, EBTH provides an entire wall-to-wall service for selling their goods. “If the family likes us and we feel that it’s a fit and we can be the best answer for their price [point],” Denny says, “we then bring items to our processing centers. We photograph, catalog, market, and authenticate their goods.” Everything worth selling then goes onto EBTH’s online marketplace, which, on average, sees over 1 million bids per month.

The future isn’t what it used to be. As an appraiser, it is heartbreaking to have to tell people that what they have saved and treasured over the years is worth a fraction of what it used to be.

Over three decades, Denny has become a pro at finding potentially forgotten items and knowing their worth. “It doesn’t have to be old to have value,” she says.  “Value can be driven by scarcity, by popularity, or by historical significance.”

But what was valuable twenty years ago might not be so today, according to Maggie Pearson, who has been a member of the American Society of Appraisers since 1972. “The future isn’t what it used to be,” she says. “As an appraiser, it is heartbreaking to have to tell people that what they have saved and treasured over the years is worth a fraction of what it used to be. The marketplace is at work. Simply put, supply and demand is at work. The baby boomers are downsizing en masse. They were the engine which drove the collectible market for years, and now there is a glut on the market.”

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Pearson adds that millennials, who are just now starting to enter the phases of life where they should be moving into large houses and buying things to fill them, aren’t doing that. “[Millennials] don’t want what their parents have and only want items which can be liquid,” she says. “They live a simpler life. They spend their money differently than their parents. Also, the American dream of buying a house for most young people has evaporated.”

Because of this, the marketplace is not the same as it was a generation ago. “The art, antique, and collectible markets are similar to the fashion industry,” Pearson says. “What’s hot and what’s not really boils down to taste, knowledge, and the economy. The marketplace is like a pyramid. The elitist collectors [are] on the top … and the base all want to be collectors who treasure anything and everything that strikes their fancy. Animation cells, bottle caps, barbwire, coins, comic books, designer purses, jewelry, stamps, textiles, Transformers, vintage clothing … basically, almost anything you name can become a collectible.”

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But as basic economics tells us, the more you have of something on the market, the less valuable it becomes. So what is actually worth holding on to?

Valuable Items You Shouldn’t Trash (And Some You Should)

Denny herself is no stranger to the phenomenon of trashing something that’s potentially valuable, a lesson she learned early on in life. “I was very lucky to grow up and go to one of the first Beatles concerts,” she says. Her neighbor was a limo driver and escorted the Fab Four to the Cincinnati Gardens for a show. Afterward, Denny and her friends met the band at the limo garage where they transferred to their next stop. “We got personally signed photographs,” she remembers. “And believe it or not, when I was probably in my early twenties and my mom said, ‘Clean this closet out…’ I pretty much pitched out my scrapbook with all that stuff in it.”

As painful as that story might be, Denny says it’s common for autographs and other paper items to go unnoticed. “The things that we typically don’t save and become very valuable are paper—what we call ephemera,” she says. “That’s why when you see a letter signed by Andrew Jackson go for hundreds of thousands [of dollars], it’s because not many people want to save paper …People tend to clean out paper on a regular basis.”

We found a book about three or four years ago on a little bookshelf in a basement, and it was autographed. And we opened it up … and in the back it had the signature of Abraham Lincoln and every one of his cabinet members in it.

During a downsize, Denny says she’ll see a client with boxes of old files in an attic who’ll want to pitch everything out. She always cautions them against it because she’s discovered some pretty significant ephemera throughout the years.

“We found a book about three or four years ago on a little bookshelf in a basement, and it was autographed,” she says. The person downsizing was a third generation Washington, D.C. native. “And we opened it up … and in the back it had the signature of Abraham Lincoln and every one of his cabinet members in it. They all authenticated and it sold for thousands of dollars.”

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While you might not necessarily be sitting on a goldmine like that, you never know what valuable items you might be holding onto, especially on your bookshelf. “The other thing that we tend to (in a very benevolent way) get rid of a lot of times is books,” Denny says. But first edition books might already be fetching high prices on the market. “Even a first edition English Harry Potter will sell for thousands of dollars already,” Denny says.

On the other hand, there might be some things you’re holding onto with the hope that it becomes valuable that probably won’t. “I have people who tell me they invested in boxed Barbie Dolls for their kids’ college education fund,” Denny says. “They spent thousands of dollars on boxed Barbie Dolls, put them in closets and never played with them, and I get to go tell them they’re worth about ten dollars a piece now.”

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As a general rule, any “collectible” that is mass produced, like Precious Moments figurines, is probably not going to prove very rare. “The whole [idea] of collectibles was created by somebody to get people to buy into buying a ‘series of’ or ‘multiples of,’” Denny says. “Once you see one on every shelf in every Hallmark, you have to realize this probably isn’t going to hold much value long term.”

To avoid these pitfalls, Pearson encourages people to be discerning in their purchases. “The old rules of collecting should still be followed,” she says. “Only buy what you love, learn all you can about the objects of your desire, and buy the best example that you can afford. These rules are also good guidelines for what to save or get rid of.”

The Unseen Value

In deciding what to throw away and what to keep, both Denny and Pearson say there are some simple questions to ask. But first, recognize that the most important value to you may be one that isn’t easily measured.

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“The biggest value that people attribute to things is … an emotional value,” Denny says. “Then there’s the value I come across that I call the story value, where someone early on in the family said this was a very valuable plate, and that story grows and grows with generations and finally someone has to sell it and they find out it’s a $15 plate.”

When downsizing or simply getting rid of items, Denny says there’s a simple question to ask. “The first thing [people] need to figure out is, ‘What’s going to fit into my next lifestyle?’” she says. “Either the size of the space that I’m moving into or the type of lifestyle I’m going to lead.” (For instance, moving someplace sunny and warm means it’s probably time to get rid of that heavy winter coat.)

“The other [question] is, do I like it enough to make a place for it?” Denny says. “Maybe it wasn’t on my first round of choices, but do I like that? Does it have family significance that I should be keeping to pass it down to someone?”

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Finally, Denny says it’s worth considering the financial windfall an item might bring. “If it’s worth $1,000 and I need $1,500, that’s one of the first items I should sell,” she says. “If I need $1,000 and it’s only worth $100 and I like it, it’s not really going to help create money for me, then I might as well keep it.”

“Basically, what you save boils down to personal taste,” says Pearson. “What do the items mean to the individual? Does it have sentimental value? Does it represent a memory as a [reason] to save it or pass it down and leave it to the next generation to decide?”

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Keep these questions in mind as guides when you’re gearing up for your next garage sale, and you’ll be fine. Just don’t throw out any autographs from Beatles, or U.S. presidents, in the meantime.