May 12, 2006
Grandma, the Packrat: New Approach Finds Pearls Amid the Junk Declutterers
Reunite Hoarders With Buried Possessions;
Diamonds in the Luggage
By KELLY GREENE
May 12, 2006; Page A1
When Kristin Bergfeld first walked into Helen Leaf's one-bedroom apartment
on New York's Upper East Side last August, she was met by a familiar sight: junk. The place was filled with books, bills, take-out menus, pill bottles
and cardboard boxes, some dating back to the 1960s. Ms. Bergfeld, a professional declutterer, had been hired to clean house.
Instead of taking a forklift approach, Ms. Bergfeld brought the eye and
patience of an archaeologist -- and in subsequent visits uncovered treasure after treasure: strings of pearls, a century-old violin, eight place
settings of delicate Limoges china and a 205-year-old choker passed down through Mrs. Leaf's family.
"She discovered things I had almost forgotten existed," says Mrs. Leaf, a 92-year-old widow.
Hoarding isn't a new problem, but it's getting more unwieldy as the number
of people age 85-plus -- the fastest-growing segment of the population --increases. Now a new approach to helping hoarders deal with their possessions is having a serendipitous side effect. Professionals like Ms. Bergfeld are unearthing treasures kept by a generation that lived through the Depression and was brought up to save and reuse as much as possible.
The discoveries are helping reunite families with lost possessions -- and, in some cases, illuminating family and social history.
Two years ago, Ms. Bergfeld was immersed in cleaning the Upper West Side apartment of a retired dancer. She found 22 cartons of notes, music, manuscripts and sketches that had belonged to Katherine Flowers, an African-American woman who started a Chicago dance company in the 1940s, then later moved to New York to teach. She died in 1982.
Ms. Bergfeld shipped the collection to the archives at Northwestern
University in Evanston, Ill., where Ms. Flowers, as a student, had
documented the roots of African-American dance. Photos from the collection have been used for a library exhibit, a university official says.
Aging and hoarding go hand in hand. Individuals lose energy for cleaning their homes, and trash piles up around them. No one tracks the number of elderly hoarders, but social agencies, fire departments, legal-aid groups and professional organizers have banded together to create a "hoarding task
force" in at least a half-dozen places, including New York, Los Angeles and
Fairfax County, Va.
Landlords and families have long favored a simple line of attack when it comes to hoarding: Get rid of everything -- as quickly as possible. But
professional organizers, cleaners and senior movers like Ms. Bergfeld are now embracing a go-slow approach. They gently weed out actual trash and
save what matters most to their clients. The goal is to make older people's surroundings safe enough so they can remain in their homes, yet keep the
Declutterers charge anything from $1,000 to more than $20,000, depending on location and the complexity of the job. Ms. Bergfeld, for example, charges
$1,500 a day for herself and three workers, and so far has spent about eight
days working with Mrs. Leaf.
Sheila Delson, an organizer in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was called in to help a widow in New Rochelle empty a home crammed with three generations'
possessions. Two years ago, in the attic, she dug through "decrepit, falling-apart pieces of luggage that had been up there for 30 or 40
years," she says. Inside, she noticed "brown, crinkly wads of Kleenex." Slowly
unfolding the tissues, she found two dozen loose diamonds. The gems and suitcases had belonged to the widow's long-deceased mother-in-law.
Donna Quinn Robbins, who helps older people move and clean up their homes in
Marin County, Calif., remembers an estate sale where she asked the client if
she had hidden anything in an antique French desk. The woman said no, just as an emerald-and-diamond ring, later appraised for $100,000, fell out of
a secret drawer. The client told Ms. Robbins that she had been looking for the
ring for years, "but with all the stuff around [she] figured it was lost forever."
Decluttering experts also learn to negotiate with adult children tired of all their family's junk. Ellen Epstein, president of Concierge America
Inc. in Chevy Chase, Md., dug a set of monogrammed silver out of the trash during
one cleanup. A grown son trying to clean out 80 years of belongings from his
family's home "got overwhelmed," she says. She persuaded him to save the silver for his daughter, she says. She also pressed him to spend $75 for a
grandfather-clock appraisal that put its value at about $35,000.
Last August, Ms. Bergfeld met Mrs. Leaf, a former promotional writer and researcher at places including NBC radio. She has rented her New York
apartment since 1953. Since her husband, a book editor, died in 1978, she has used the apartment's bedroom mainly for storage. They had no children.
Mrs. Leaf was hospitalized in March 2005 for respiratory distress and has been in a nursing home since. A geriatric-care manager called in by Mrs.
Leaf's lawyer decided that the stacks of belongings and narrow passages between them made it too dangerous for her to live at home with an oxygen
machine in tow.
The care manager, Donna Sylvestri, contacted Ms. Bergfeld to help with Mrs. Leaf's case. "It was a really big deal when she gave us keys" to the
apartment, Ms. Sylvestri says. "We're the only people she's had in her home in years."
Ms. Bergfeld snapped hundreds of photos on her first visit to the
apartment, documenting every inch of the place. Then she visited Mrs. Leaf,
leaving her with pictures of her home so they could decide what to do with specific
items in each frame.
At first, while searching for financial records Ms. Sylvestri needed, Ms. Bergfeld found the violin, once played by Mrs. Leaf's father. A search in October and November yielded the first coin he had earned and five strands of pearls, one a gift on Mrs. Leaf's wedding day. Deep in the bedroom closet, Ms. Bergfeld pulled out a sweater box holding a log-cabin quilt.
Mrs. Leaf says it was started by her stepmother's Swedish mother in 1886 while working as a housekeeper. She cut silk squares from fancy dresses to create a "streak of lightning" pattern. Mrs. Leaf's stepmother later completed the quilt and won a sewing prize.
As Ms. Bergfeld worked her way through the stacks, she often called Mrs. Leaf, who gave step-by-step directions for finding her once unreachable jewelry, describing the type and color of each box or leather pouch.
In January, after making Mrs. Leaf's apartment more navigable,
Ms. Bergfeld sweet-talked the building manager into painting the walls, resurfacing the
porcelain sinks and installing a new stove, all in the hope that its longtime tenant could return. Ms. Sylvestri, the care manager, walked into the newly cleaned apartment in late April and exclaimed, "There's a fireplace here? That's news to me!"
In recent months, Mrs. Leaf has told Ms. Bergfeld that she wants to find a permanent home in a museum for her choker and quilt. Last week, Mrs. Leaf decided she's ready to have her jewelry, violin and other heirlooms appraised for sale. The money she raises could help her afford the help she needs to move back home.
Write to Kelly Greene at firstname.lastname@example.org