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Finding Treasures Among the Everyday

Collectibles: If you know what you're doing, you can pick up some valuable items at estate sales. Terry and Ralph Kovel make a living at it.


Terry Kovel hovers over a well-worn Indian beaded pouch, spotting it instantly in a jumble of colorful costume jewelry.

"This is probably very good," she says, zooming in for a closer look at the $10 item. "Some collector is going to know exactly what it is. I'd buy it on a gamble."

But Kovel wasn't here to buy. She and husband, Ralph, were in Los Angeles recently to give advice on how to maneuver the competitive, sometimes thrilling, sometimes nerve-racking world of estate sales. A step up from garage sales, they can be treasure troves of antiques and collectibles--jewelry, vintage clothing, vases, figurines, books, linens and toys, all for a fraction of the price charged in stores.

The Kovels are arguably the authorities on antiques and collectibles in this country. Authors of more than 70 books, they are perhaps best known for "Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price List." The annual guide with some 50,000 entries will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year with the publication of the 1998 guide next month.

They also publish a monthly newsletter and write a syndicated weekly newspaper column, as well as the monthly column "Your Collectibles" for House Beautiful magazine. And they have a Web site: Based in Ohio, the Kovels operate out of a staffed office in their home, which is, not surprisingly, crammed with antiques.

But after decades of hunting and gathering, the two still get that sweaty-palm, pulse-racing feeling when they spot something really good. And they love to share tips.

First stop on a recent Friday morning is a 10 o'clock estate sale in Los Feliz. Following the owner's death, the entire contents of the house have been put up for sale, from kitchen gadgets to clothes to plants to a bedroom set.

By 9:45, cars line the street and dozens of buyers, Starbucks cups in hand, buzz about on the front lawn. The Kovels are ushered in a few minutes early to peruse the merchandise before the crowd descends.

They cruise through the dining room, noting several silver serving pieces that they predict will go quickly. Everything has a price tag, down to the tiniest tchotchke. Terry Kovel spots some Wedgwood ashtrays in the living room for $18. "That's a good price for Wedgwood," she says, then fixes her gaze on an Oriental teapot.

"This is a type of teapot a lot of people like to collect. [But] it says 'China' on the bottom, so it's not as old as you'd like. Now, this is a beautiful lamp," she says, rushing over to a $200 Chinese porcelain with a ginger jar base. "It's been repaired--it says 'as is' on the price tag. But this kind of lamp in perfect condition would go for $500 to $800."

And that card table in the corner? "You can't find these in furniture stores anymore. They were very in in the '50s and are still quite useful."

She moves on to a mahogany library table priced at $950. "It's a weird shape. But if you're like we are--collectors--we have a table behind every sofa to put things on. Now that's a good jardiniere," she says, tapping a large pot on the floor with her sensibly shod foot.

Ralph Kovel spies an old tin toy for $200, a sign that the seller knows it's a highly valued collectible. Although the price seems high, Kovel is sure a dealer will recognize it and snatch it right up.

Still, it is always possible to find real bargains when sellers don't know the value of what they have. "No one knows everything," Ralph says. "I don't care who they are."

Terry Kovel once picked up a necklace of seed pearls and topaz for $10, not knowing its heritage. She learned later that it was a valuable 18th century piece.


In a small bedroom where a side table is laden with East Indian objets d'art, the Kovels get down to business. "This is where you have to know what this stuff is," Terry explains. "It might be very good--or it might not."

In the master bedroom, racks of women's clothing line one wall. A dozen handbags sit atop a dresser; Terry picks up a small floral needlepoint bag and says that at $6, it's a bargain. She also points out a pile of table linens priced from a few dollars and up, some never used, that she thinks will go fast.

Wandering into the garage, Ralph comes upon a table stacked with Christmas decorations. Although the holiday seems far away on this warm, overcast day, he predicts the seasonal baubles will "fly out the door."

The Kovels make it back to the living room seconds before the doors open and the buyers spill in.

"Watch this now," Terry says.

"Don't stand on a rug. Someone might want it and they'll pull it right out from under you," warns Ralph.

Sure enough, the shoppers attack the house like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Oversized bags and boxes in hand, their eyes are fixed and focused, mouths set in determination, ready for the kill.

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