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Hoarders, Hauntings, and Two-Headed Cows: Dealing with Dead People's Things

Duane Scott Cerny started out in the business of collecting other people's things at a young age, when he traded toys with his classmates, then graduated to selling Playboy magazines to high school friends, then he worked in an antique shop. Eventually, he had his own antique mall. After years of buying and selling, Cerny wrote a memoir about the business called Selling Dead People's Things.

In “Selling Dead People’s Things,” Cerny takes us inside a few hoarder dens, describing the sights as well as the smell, which he says is “a vile mix of feces, mold, decay, and death.” In one chapter, Cerny tags along with a man named Marvin, who makes a living in one of the weirder corners of the real-estate industry by cleaning out the former homes of hoarders in order to make them presentable enough to sell. For Cerny, these trips into olfactory hell—Marvin rarely eats before a cleanout—hold the potential of one or two hidden treasures amid the garbage, or perhaps an entire cache of goodies that can be sanitized, disinfected, and resold. For Marvin, everything else is equal before the blade of his shovel. The work, we learn, is grinding and monotonous, and falls into two basic categories—ankle-deep or knee-high—referring to the height of the plastic garbage bags that Marvin wraps tightly around his legs to protect himself from the worst filth.

At some point, most serious collectors and dealers have their own hoarder moment, in which they consider, if only as a passing thought, whether their collection of porcelain signs, candlestick telephones, comic books, or sofas has become a hoard. Where does one draw the line?

“I think when you can’t have people over, you’re a hoarder,” Cerny says.

The book is about more than hoarders, but hoarding is one of the subjects of an article at Collectors Weekly in which Cerny gives us an overview of hoarders and obsessive collectors he's encountered, both alive and deceased, while obtaining antiques for his store.  


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