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Pricing the past: Inside a Metairie tag sale

Kitchenware finds (photos by: Lynda Moreau)

If you're curious about other people's lives, there are several safe ways in. Film, books, Instagram -- they all provide shades of reality to the voyeur, all within an accepted norm of behavior. Lynda Moreau has found another way in, and it's all part of her job.

Nearly every week, Moreau enters a home in the New Orleans area, takes a look around, and begins to methodically sift through the owner's possessions. But it's not what you might think. She runs an estate sale company called Silent Partners.

"We usually have two or three days to sell a lifetime of accumulation," Moreau says. When a family hires Moreau to work on their house, she separates the antiques and ephemera with potential value from the rest, and liquidates everything to glean the highest possible value for the family.

Moreau can trace her fascination with relics all the way back to childhood.

"When I was a little girl, I was the kid who would stand with her nose pressed against the lady's china cabinet looking at all of her stuff while the other kids were in the yard playing," she recalls.

This devotion to objects of the past eventually turned over to a study of history when Moreau arrived at college. From there, she had little interest in teaching or law school, so she began working as an antiques dealer on Magazine Street, which led her to her first tag sale.

"I was scared to death," she laughs. "I just didn't know what to expect, but once the door opened my personality took over and it was fine. You learn from every house you do. You never stop learning."

Fast forward several years. It's late August, and Moreau is working in what she calls a "granny house," a mid-century time capsule in Metairie. This granny house most likely belonged to a woman who moved in at the height of the '60s development boom and spent decades of her life creating a home in that one-story bungalow.  

Sitting on the Hollywood Regency sofa in the tidy, carpeted living room -- which faces an indoor patio or "Florida room" --  it's as if nothing has changed since the 1960s. Now, however, this woman has passed away and now Moreau is in the middle of reconciling her middle-class estate.

Moreau says that one of the biggest conflicts that comes up in her work is that the older generation saves a lifetime of belongings that they assume their children will gladly inherit, only to find out that social morés have shifted, and the younger generation would prefer not to take on a houseful of heirlooms.

She sees this generational difference as “a vestige of the Great Depression." That is, the older folks lived through a period in which Americans conserved everything in their home, from their prized armoires to the twist-ties in their kitchen drawer.

Not so these days. Shifting values and a globalized economy have created a more disposable mentality, wherein IKEA sets can be replaced without hesitation. For Moreau, that means she can make the most out of what's left behind, carefully pricing out old Pyrexes and Barbie clothes to the highest bidders across the country.

Within this seemingly conventional world of estate sales and eBay bids exists the daily possibility of happening upon something new and unexpected. It's not the objects themselves or the auctions that excite Moreau most about her job. For her, it's pure discovery.

"It's like a treasure hunt," she says. Moreau gets to chance upon those rare moments when everyday work can become a thrill, no matter how fleeting.

 

Sarah Holtz is an independent radio producer. She produces arts and culture pieces for New Orleans Public Radio. You can hear her work on Notes from New OrleansLouisiana Eatsand NOLA Life StoriesAt WRBH Reading Radio, she writes grants and programs music articles. Sarah also hosts the Sunday Blues show at WTUL New Orleans. She’s interested in the ways in which place and memory can be expressed in sound. She spends a lot of time listening to things. You can contact her at sarahholtz3@gmail.com.