Estate sales differ from garage sales in some fundamental ways. While a garage sale normally offers a select group of items laid out in a garage or driveway, an estate sale is usually an "everything must go," whole-house affair. Garage sales can be spur-of-the-moment, while an estate sale is often occasioned by the homeowner's death, downsizing move or disposal of shared property after a divorce. Also, because estate sales feature lots of stuff the owners are anxious to get rid of, knowing what to look for can net you some incredible bargains.
Sterling silver flatware, serving dishes and jewelry are great items to look for at estate sales. People rarely discard sterling items, realizing they have value as a precious metal, so chances are good you may find such pieces as a baby's silver spoon or sterling ear bobs tucked among the jumble of the typical sale. While everyone knows silver has material value, those organizing the estate sale don't have the time to investigate the collectible value of each item in the sale. Therefore, if you know your sterling hallmarks--the unique logo impressed in the metal that signifies the maker and date of manufacture--you can pick up some big bargains. Educate yourself in advance by consulting a silver collector's guide to sterling hallmarks, or have a consultant standing by the cell phone to look the up for you.
Antique dolls in good condition can be valuable. Vintage dolls such as certain Barbie issues can also be worth double or triple their original value. For example, a 1972 Walk Lively Miss America Barbie, a special edition from Kellogg's, can be worth several times what it sold for new if in excellent shape. The best bets in dolls you find at an estate sale are those that are still in their original box, perhaps tucked away in a cedar chest or dresser drawer for safekeeping. Dolls that are made of materials such as composition or celluloid that are no longer available are also valuable in good condition. Certain popular collectibles such as Hummel figurines or vintage Kewpie dolls can also be valuable.
Glassware is a vast category, and you cannot always tell a good buy at first sight; many collectors specialize in a certain glassware producer, such as Limoges, or a particular production era, such as the Depression, in order to selectively shop with authority. However, you may not care as much about collectible value as you do about aesthetic appeal, in which case the only guideline you will need to select estate sale glass will be your personal preference. Any chip or crack will lower the value of the piece significantly, so feel around the edges and inspect the object in the light for any flaws. This is also important should you intend to use what you buy.
I have an MFA degree in Creative Writing and am a published poet who has received several poetry awards. I have established a reputation as an environmental activist, both through the group I co-founded -- see alternativeone.org -- and through a series of op-ed pieces in Montana newspapers. I have written extensively on alternative energy, recycling and endangered species.