Professional 'tag' sales

Elizabeth Fitch and Sarah Kain, two Connecticut women whose children are grown and whose husbands are semiretired, are giving class and professional authority to the old-fashioned tag sale.

Only, instead of the term tag sale, they prefer household or estate sale -- or ''consignment sale,'' if it applies to their huge sell-off that takes place here once a year in an old rented barn. This year the four-day sale, held over the Memorial Day weekend, disposed of thousands of objects from over 70 consignors.

It was almost eight years ago that the partners decided they could carve out a neat little career for themselves by redistributing other people's possessions. They discovered that no one else in their area of southwest Connecticut was filling the great need for such a professional service. Many people, they discovered, were either retiring or relocating to other communities or to smaller homes or condominiums. Others needed help in settling estates, or just in uncluttering their homes and getting rid of excess goods. They saw that they could be of genuine assistance, have fun doing it, make a little money for themselves, and give employment to other housewives and retired professionals looking for new ways to be more useful.

Before their partnership both Mrs. Kain and Mrs. Fitch had attended many yard sales. As something of a lark, they and a few friends staged their own highly successful sale to clear out their surplus possessions. Then one day a lawyer friend asked them to help him, for a fee, dispose of the contents of a small house to settle an estate he was handling. That commission launched them in the business of helping others sell what they no longer need nor want.

And that sale, along with subsequent ones, confirmed their theory that everyone loves a bargain - and that one person's trash can be another person's treasure. Although they also dispose of fine antiques and works of art, they discovered that even the most defunct junk out of other people's attics, basements, and barns could have resale value.

From the beginning the partners established that their commission would be 25 percent of the sales, out of which they would pay for ads and appraisers, hire help, and take care of all operational costs. Owners keep 75 percent of the proceeds.

If a house is an ''awful mess,'' and it and its contents must be thoroughly cleaned before a sale can be conducted, an additional fee is charged. The women say this fee for extra labor often runs around $200.

They have resisted any urgings to add auctions to their operation. ''Others can do that,'' they say. ''We generally prefer to hold tag sales right in our clients' houses. And we think the public likes this arrangement better, too. They don't have to sit all day through an auction, waiting for something they want to appear on the block. They can browse leisurely and think about things. If they think they want a set of chairs (or anything else), but aren't sure, they can sit down, hold the tag in one hand, and cogitate until they make up their mind.''

Mrs. Kain and her husband, Richard, live in Sharon, Conn.; Mrs. Fitch and her husband, John, live in an old colonial home in nearby Salisbury, Conn. The business address of their venture, called Fitch-Kain Associates, is Lakeville, Conn. Both husbands support the project, which is giving their wives such obvious pleasure and satisfaction.

So far, the partners have sold thousands of dollars worth of contents from dozens of homes and apartments in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. These sales have netted from $4,000, for the contents of small homes, up to $75, 000, for the valuable contents of a fine old home in Litchfield, Conn. Most of the larger rural homes in which they conduct sales net from $25,000 to $50,000, ''and that includes selling every single thing down to the last paring knife and jar of nails,'' they say. They always ask that nothing be removed from a house before they get there.

Their biggest customers, they say, are people between the ages of 25 and 45 who are either furnishing homes (trying to find sturdy furniture made in the '30 s and '40s), acquiring antiques and works of art at good prices, or adding to collections of specific objects.

The partners always seek qualified appraisals of the antiques, paintings, Oriental rugs, jewelry, books, and so forth. Many of these appraisers are knowledgeable retired people who live in the area and are glad to put their expertise to work. The women have also been known to send paintings down to New York City by limousine in order to attain a quick and expert appraisal. ''Correct appraisals are very important to our pricing,'' they explain.

Right now, there is a big demand for Oriental rugs, says Mrs. Fitch, and jewelry and paintings always move quickly. Silver and bric-a-brac sales are down , but furniture sales are up. ''Junk'' sells faster than anything else.

''The market is definitely down this year, and people are being far more selective,'' Mrs. Fitch says. ''They are scorning items that are chipped, cracked, or broken, and searching out the practical, useful, and well-made objects that are in good condition.'' They have encountered only a few bad checks, and only a few items have been stolen. ''We try to make our sales happy occasions, and most of our customers enter into that spirit -- and come and leave with a good feeling,'' she says.

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