The Opulent World of the Estate-Sale Queen of Dallas

Janelle Stone’s estate sales have a way of inspiring a frenzy. She used to post the address of an upcoming sale online a few days in advance, but things occasionally got out of hand. People camped out for four days to be first in line, or peered in the window as she attached price tags to fur coats and Hermès scarves. Once, a woman tried to crawl down a chimney to get early access. These days, Stone doesn’t announce the address until 6 A.M on the day of the event. Nonetheless, people try to find whatever edge they can. Stone’s son and business partner, Wen, used to have EST8SL as a vanity plate, until he suspected someone of following him to discover the location of a sale.

At Stone’s most recent sale, in October, a man was already queuing outside the front door an hour before the location was made public. “There are three things I don’t talk about: politics, religion, and where I get the address,” he said primly. Soon, the line stretched down the block of an upscale neighborhood in Dallas. “This isn’t even that many,” a man in a salmon-colored shirt, who’d been in line since dawn, said. “She did one earlier this year and there were hundreds of people waiting.” I asked him if he went to a lot of estate sales, and he gave me a pointed look: “I go to every one of hers.”

Inside the house, a stately French Colonial on Shannon Lane, Stone bustled through the rooms, making final preparations before she opened the doors to the public. Stone is sixty-three, with beauty-queen hair and seemingly endless energy, thanks to regular infusions of Diet Coke and 5-Hour Energy shots; for nearly four decades, she has handled the estate sales of some of Dallas’s wealthiest families. She has five full-time employees, but on sale days she brings on dozens more. Most of them are women in pearls and designer belts who are less interested in the paycheck than in the chance at behind-the-scenes access to Ella’s Stone’s world. (At one sale, Stone told me, the “girls” she hired as attendants spent four thousand dollars each.) Sara Bould, one of the temporary workers, brushed her fingers against a nineteenth-century Chinese lamp with a pleated silk shade, priced at fifteen hundred dollars. “It’s hard not to shop,” she said. “My husband is, like, ‘Please don’t go, this is a losing proposition.’ ”

The estate-sale business is in the midst of a pandemic-inspired boom, driven in part by online platforms. But, if your tastes run to voyeurism and decadence, there’s nothing like an in-person Janelle Stone event. Her sales from her typically last two days, during which she might sell more than a million dollars’ worth of antiques, vintage couture, and tchotchkes. She handles only eight to ten sales a year, and each involves a lengthy immersion in people’s luxurious eccentricities: a former model with two hundred pairs of mink eyelashes; a woman with a two-story closet; a man with a garage full of headlights from vintage vehicles; a family that glued porcelain teacups to their kitchen ceiling in a fit of whimsy. The buyers are often as remarkable as the sellers. At one sale, a woman spent nearly half a million dollars on David Webb jewelry; at another, two people nearly came to blows over a fifty-thousand-dollar sculpture. But Stone is just as happy to sell a three-dollar trinket dish: “We get the wealthy and the not-wealthy, the well-heeled and the tacky, people in beaters and people in Maseratis,” she said. “There’s something for everyone.”

Janelle and Wen Stone, in front of their estate-sale sign.

Estate sales are spurred by major life events: through death or divorce or downsizing, people end up with too much stuff, which they want to get rid of quickly. Wealthy people face the same problem, at a much larger scale. (Stone’s sales don’t always have a sad backstory. She has worked for a woman who bought a fully furnished place on the best street in the city, then decided she hated all the furniture; and for a family with multiple residences that wanted to get rid of some excess stuff.) Dallas is an excellent place to sell rich people’s things to other rich people. Stone works primarily in the Park Cities, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Texas, where old status signifiers—china, crystal, sterling—still signify. “We did a sale in Austin, and we couldn’t sell the silver. People didn’t care about silver. But, in Dallas, they love it,” Wen Stone told me. “Dallas is known for being big, big and shiny. Here, people like to show off their things.”

Three days before the October sale, after promising to keep the address secret, I met Stone at the Shannon Lane house, across from the Dallas Country Club. Stone trilled hello and apologized if she was covered in price-tag stickers. (Ella She was not.) She led me into the kitchen, where she and her team sat at a round, mirrored-glass table (four thousand nine hundred and seventy-five dollars). Most of the work was already done, and the house was crowded with objects for sale: a crystal ashtray (sixty-five dollars) on a side table, a Ming-dynasty Buddha (four thousand nine hundred and seventy-five dollars) beside the fireplace. Stone, who is one short credit of a degree in interior design, takes pride in her ability to stage a room so that people can imagine the objects in their own homes. Sometimes, she told me, a buyer will walk into a sale, gesture at a corner, and say, “I’ll take the whole vignette.” “She could put six dollars on this,” Sarah Barrera, who has worked with Stone for twenty-eight years, said, holding up a can of Coke Zero. “And she would get it. Because it’s Janelle Stone.”

Estate-sale companies in Dallas tend to charge the same commission—forty per cent of gross—so they have to distinguish themselves in other ways. Stone pays fanatical attention to detail, to insure that the sales have a distinct Janelle Stone feel. (“It’s always so organized, and it doesn’t smell like old people or kitty litter,” as one man in line later told me.) She orders a special card stock for her price tags, and writes them with Barrera. “I’m very particular about handwriting,” she said.

Stone is good at selling to this world in part because she knows it so intimately. Her family of ella has lived in the Park Cities for three generations. “We know everybody here,” she told me. She grew up going to estate sales with her mother and grandmother, back when that world was dominated by two grande dames, Ruth Shaw and Ruth Taylor. (Taylor wore her hair teased so high, Stone recalled, “ella it was close to God.”) Stone met her husband de ella, Bill, a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer, when she was eighteen and married him when she was twenty -one. The wives of Highland Park traditionally divided their time between personal-trainer sessions and long lunches, but Stone found that she had too much energy not to work. She hosted her first depart from her in 1983, when she was twenty-four; at her second exit from her, she found a long-lost diamond in a sock. Her friends of Ella did n’t always understand what she was up to. “People who don’t go to these think, Oh, she does garage sales,” she said. Later, she became a certified appraiser, specializing in probate cases. The job involved two things she was becoming good at—pricing antiques and managing warring families—and she paid “very, look and well,” she said, but she chafed at the mostly deskbound work: “I like to be up, I like to be digging, I like the treasure hunting.”

I followed Stone upstairs, into a walk-in closet. She had already priced and arranged the more lucrative items downstairs; now, in the final days before the sale, she was left with the dregs—a cat’s scratching post, some non-designer luggage. Stone gave a pair of orthopedic sneakers a skeptical look. “Are these embarrassing for the family?” she asked me. She understands that, in Highland Park, people come to her sales from her just as much to scope out their neighbors’ stuff as to shop; as such, a major part of the job is creating the illusion of a home that’s full of only beautiful things, where nothing is stained or smudged or worn. “If they’re hoarders, make sure it doesn’t look like that,” Wen said. “You make sure it looks nice—clean, staged, pretty. We’ve ripped out carpet when there was hardwood underneath and we knew that it would look better.”

But even multimillion-dollar homes don’t always start out pretty. Sometimes the estate has recently emerged from a protracted probate process, and the house may have been sitting empty for months. Stone has dealt with mansions infested with rats, and with snakes in fountains. Barrera reminded Stone of a sale they’d done decades earlier, in a house where an elderly woman had been living alone. “How many furs did she have—a hundred seventy-five? And layers and layers of Oriental rugs,” Stone recalled. But there was also a toilet so crooked that you had to brace yourself against the wall to use it, and an atrium clogged with leaves. “And, when it rained, it rained in the house,” Stone said. There is, occasionally, interpersonal ugliness, too; nothing brings out family feuds like the allocation of expensive, sentimental objects. “I try to get people to change the locks, because relatives will come by and take things,” Stone said.

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