A Bexley estate sale

From the August 2010 edition

A scarce few people attending a recent Bexley estate sale knew the entire history of the home they were about to walk through. On a somewhat chilly day in mid-November, only 75 curious people were allowed in the mansion at a time. The hundred or so who remained outside waited for more than two hours to be part of one of the community’s largest estate sales in memory. Speculation among those waiting ranged from the contents of the sale to family history.

“The jewelry and furs will be sold at another time,” one middle-aged woman confidently announced. In fact, some of the home’s treasures were sent to Christie’s auction house in New York, as well as a Chicago auction house specializing in couture fashions.

Still, on that frost-bitten morning, the home loomed large as a long line of people waited outside. Certainly, it’s a house with a past. And, even though this is a story about a memorable estate sale, the prestigious home’s history cannot be ignored.

In 1922, Simon Lazarus, grandson of the founder of the former Lazarus department stores, moved to South Columbia Avenue to build this house, one of the first on this exclusive, tree-lined street. He and his wife, Edna, raised their four children—Simon Jr., Charles, Rose and Joan—in the sprawling stone-and-wood mansion.

After Edna’s death in 1932, Simon eventually remarried, and new wife, Amy Weiler Harmon, moved in. Accompanying her were her two children, daughter Phyllis and young son Al. (Al later became the founder of the Original Mattress Company, and Phyllis married to assume the last name of Greene and became the mother of Chicago-based writer Bob Greene.)

Through the years, the address boasted an additional pedigree of prominent citizens and their families, among them Edgar T. Wolfe Sr., a former publisher of the Columbus Dispatch.

Finally, in 1965, Millard Cummins, who had grown up right across the street, and his wife, Diane, purchased the home. They cherished the subsequent years there, raising their three children, entertaining guests with Diane’s sumptuous gourmet cooking and her husband’s expertly-chosen wines, sunning by their new pool, curling up with one of their hundreds of books or listening as Millard played tunes on the 1920s Steinway.

But now, the children are grown and have busy professional lives in New York, Los Angeles and Sante Fe. Millard, an engineer and former owner of the Thurman Scale Company, and Diane moved to Florida years ago, and haven’t returned at all to the house in the last five years. (A fulltime staff has kept up with the maintenance.) The Cummins family decided it was time to sell, and the home passed to new owners in early October 2009. Thus, the reason for this expansive estate sale.

Enter Jeff Baker, a personal property appraiser and estate liquidator. Baker was charged with dismantling the lifetime of treasures the home had held for the last 44 years—fine silver and Baccarat crystal, important oil paintings, antique toys, a huge doll collection, regal furnishings—all in about three weeks. “The house was stuffed to the rafters,” Baker admits. “When they left, they weren’t anticipating a move.”

It was an assignment requiring considerable expertise, exquisite organizational skills and the sensitivity and counsel of a trusted friend. Baker, 44, is certified by the International Society of Appraisers and previously owned an antiques business, which was followed by stints at Global Living and American Signature. As an estate liquidator, he surrounds himself with like associates, such as Jay Melrose, a knowledgeable antiques show promoter who has partnered with Baker on projects for the last 20 years.

A close friend recommended Baker to the somewhat-overwhelmed Cummins family. “After a half-dozen meetings, they turned the keys over to me,” says Baker, recalling his first meetings with the family. The three children completed a walk-through to identify the items they wanted to keep. Baker marked them, and contracted American Delivery Express, a local moving company, to carefully deliver selections to their locations across the country. The two sons, Marc and Phil, took relatively few things due to space considerations, while daughter Cece, seeking Baker’s advice, honed in on sentimental items.

For the rest of the mammoth project, the Cummins family opted for the full menu of Baker’s services: selling valuables at the huge three-day estate sale on site and matching super-expensive or specialized market items—like two Martha Mood tapestries from the 1970s priced at $6,500 and $8,500—with specific audiences if they didn’t sell during the estate sale. Baker also would oversee donating gently-used items to charity, discarding things no longer needed (at last count, that amounted to nine full dumpsters), and leaving the entire place clean for the new owners.

“It’s like an archaeological dig,” Baker says during the weeks he prepared for the sale. Even though the family’s storage in the 10,000-square-foot house was orderly, he would find receipts and owner’s manuals in the basement for items that were stored in the attic. Baker and his small crew meticulously sorted, researched, appraised and grouped like-items for the estate sale. “My specialty is period furniture, particularly American antiques and silver,” Melrose explains. “Jeff is an expert in European antiques and art.”

But Baker admits, “Every house has a fresh category.” This time it was stereo equipment—complete with McIntosh amplifiers from the 1960s—that was “not on my radar,” he says. Antique games from the 1920s required extensive research, as well as the $20,000 worth of camera equipment that Millard, an avid photographer, owned.

It didn’t take a wine expert, however, to recognize that one had resided here. Simon Lazarus’s walk-in safe, deep in the basement, was retrofitted years ago to become a state-of-the-art wine cellar for Millard’s collection. (A cool breeze still chills the small room to 55 degrees. “We can’t turn it off,” Baker confesses.) Millard’s son Phil, a partner in the Innovative Dining Group, which owns 10 restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Scottsdale, is selling the wines in his restaurants. While he declines to reveal their market value, Phil says, “Let’s just call it an extensive collection.”

“I’m selling these for Dad on consignment. I send him a check every month for what we’ve sold,” he says. “It’d be very difficult for a wine cellar at a restaurant to put together this kind of a collection—it’s broad and deep—with spectacular wines like a 1921 Chateau d’Yquem. And a 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. It’s a win-win for both of us.”

Equally discerning—Diane Cummins’s taste for fashion. A large collection of museum-quality couture, including numerous creations by Bill Blass and Lilly Pulitzer in a slender size 0, plus a trunk full of Hermes scarves and over 100 pairs of Ferragamo shoes, has left the premises for future disbursement at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago, which specializes in vintage couture and accessories.

High-priced items gave some shoppers that day an adrenaline rush, but the prices may not have inspired bargain hunters. The most expensive item in the sale was the oil painting, “Old Mill at Dallas, Missouri,” a landscape done by Ernest Lawson, an early 20th century Canadian-American impressionist. It was valued at $110,000, and when it didn’t sell during the estate sale, it was sent to be a part of the American Paintings auction at Christie’s in New York.

Interior decorator Albert Neurosky, popular in the late 1960s with Bexley residents, decorated the Cummins mansion. And, although the home was arranged specifically for the estate sale, design trends of decades past peeked through. One included the unique, kelly green-and-white master bathroom, which featured an unusually long-and-skinny sunken tub, an ornate chandelier and quaint wall-mounted hairdryer.

A shimmering silver wallpaper adorned with hand-painted flowering shrubs and butterflies was spotted in the dining room, highlighted by a massive 10-foot custom-made Auffray & Co. sideboard ($2,450) and a late 19th century French crystal-and-bronze chandelier ($12,000). Elegance from earlier periods seemed to be everywhere.

However, as the first shoppers emerged from the front door, a still-waiting neighbor observed: “There’s a big disconnect between what you imagine inside and what people are walking out with—wooden salad bowls and old roasting pans.” One shopper carried a desk lamp, suitable for a dorm. Another toted a Barbie, complete with box, purchased for $5. An older gent had three cookbooks tucked under his arm.

By early afternoon, red “sold” tags were cropping up on small chandeliers and lighting fixtures. The table with four upholstered chairs had been purchased. Wall-to-wall bookcases of cookbooks were picked over, although Food for Fifty and Craig Claiborne’s Gourmet Diet were still available. Millard Cummins’s portrait as a boy, painted in 1949 by Tip Miller, had also sold, going for $450.

Upstairs, in the master bedroom, voices of the treasure seekers on the first floor receded. A folding table interrupted the faded beauty of the room, sporting an array of electronics—hairdryers, a white noise machine, two Sony TVs (bargain-priced at $25 each). Pale yellow wallpaper was scarred with rectangles of a deeper yellow, marking where, for years, favorite artwork has hung. A boxed lot of perfumes on the floor, priced at $25, contains elegant bottles, some still more than half full.

On the Monday after the three-day-sale, Baker was quite pleased with the results. “Most everything sold,” he said. “This address got a lot of attention, and people wanted a little something, a memento, from it. The 30 percent discount on Sunday helped, too.”

The dining room chandelier went to one of Baker’s clients, only slightly below sticker price. A charity group arrived later to take away leftover books. The Martha Mood tapestries awaited a stronger seller’s market. And Christie’s will now auction the Lawson painting in the spring.

What remained were pieces of family life, sorted and sifted. “Pulled apart,” as Phil Cummins put it during a discussion prior to the sale. “But Jeff’s doing a spectacular job. He’s making the process as simple and painless as it can be.”

Meanwhile, Baker was already thinking about his next assignment. “A fabulous home on Preston,” he says, just a few blocks over.

Rhonda Koulermos is a freelance writer.

This story appeared in the January 2010 issue of Columbus Monthly Homes.