White Elephant Preview Sale helps fund the Oakland museum

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Doris Lilly took her time deciding between three different sets of croquet equipment. “This is vintage and it just cost me $15. I knew I would be able to find it here,” she said confidently, picking one set.

Lilly grew up playing croquet with her family. Later she would play with friends, but it has been ten years since she played her beloved game. Now, she is enthusiastic to play again.

“I can’t wait to play croquet with my son,” she said. This set of mallets has drawn a smile to Lilly’s face. It is also helping the Oakland Museum of California.

On the sunny morning of January 28, the thousands of objects dispersed throughout the 96,000 square foot warehouse at 333 Lancaster Street in Oakland were awaiting a new home. It was the 59th edition of the White Elephant Preview Sale, organized by the museum’s Women’s Board. All the funds obtained by the sales will support the museum. Last year, the sale raised over $2 million.

“What differentiates this White Elephant Sale from other rummage sales is that we donate all the proceeds to the Oakland museum,” said Diana Berry, the co-chair of the sale. Berry is part of a team of 800 volunteers who were ready to receive between 2,500 and 4,000 buyers on this day.

Some of them came looking for an object in particular. Bei Cao, age 29, has been participating in this sale for 6 years. She likes finding “unique items.” This time she was after the designs of Laurel Burch to add to her collection.

Cao found a couple of cups and a colorful teapot cat. “I collect Laurel Burch items and I was very happy to find it because at first it wasn’t there. But somebody must have put the teapot it back, so I bought it!” she said. Somebody nearby overheard her enthusiasm for Laurel Burch and pointed her to a cup hidden some shelves away. Bei quickly rushed for it, happy to find art in the “Housing Section.”

Over in the “Art Section,” John Bartevian, a motorcycle art designer from Castro Valley, had found three treasures, even if he was not really sure about what they were. One of them that he found especially amazing was a wooden statue portraying a man apparently in a praying posture with his hands toward the sky.

“This took somebody a long time to carve. It is very interesting because it is not a static piece of work. It is almost in motion. Look at the head in front,” he pointed out. Bartevian comes to the sale every year “to find these artworks that comes from all over,” he said, because he wants to understand how other artists work. “It is a melting pot for people all over the world. You can find some very interesting art that you can’t find anywhere else.”

By chance he discovered an inscription in Spanish on the back of the sculpture. That piece was carved in 1989 in Chiapas, Mexico, by a man called “Santos” in honour of “kulkukan” the god of the creation of Yaxchitan. Part of the mystery of the three treasures had been solved.

A few meters away, Juanita Landa from Milpitas had found the two 12-inch chairs that she needed for her new dollhouse. “I am a dollhouse collector and I also build miniatures. I will use this two chairs for a little sewing room and office that I am working on,” she said. It is only her second time at the sale, but she seemed convinced that this is the place where you find whatever you are searching for—even if it measures 12 inches.

However, the key components of this immense warehouse are the volunteers. In the last decade, Oaklander Claudia Skelton has been the soul of the “Games and Toys” section. In two weeks, she will celebrate her 80th birthday.

Skelton has been coming to the sale since 1986, first as a shopper. “Over the years, it has grown and grown, until becoming this giant warehouse that has everything that you can imagine. But it hasn’t changed that much,” she said. For her, it is still like in the “old days.” She said she enjoyed coming to the sales so much that when she retired in 2007, she decided it was time to give back and volunteer.

The sale of the thousands of objects, from teapot cats to croquet sets, will enable the rest of Oakland’s neighbors to enjoy arts and culture at the museum. Skelton smiled when she recalled her last trip to the museum: “They had a wonderful exhibit on the Black Panthers.”

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