MORGANTOWN, WV—The sum total of recently deceased Morgantown native Henry Keller's eight decades of hard work, honesty, frugality, and sacrifice sold for $5,235.78 at an estate sale this weekend, family members reported.
"Dad was a good parent and a good man, and he had an incredible impact on our lives," said Tom Keller, 57, Keller's eldest son. "But at the end of the day, when all the sales were added up, the total value of his life was less than the book price for a 2002 Dodge Neon."
Keller, who died in his sleep Feb. 8 at the age of 83, joined the workforce when he was just 13 to support his widowed mother and siblings, and later worked for nearly 35 years as a foreman in a small tool-and-die shop before retiring in 1988.
Despite the fact that Keller was the first member of his family to own his own home—eventually sold to pay medical bills—and that he put four children through college, the actual market value of his achievements proved strikingly low. When broken down evenly over Keller's entire life, the amount averages 17.2 cents a day, far below Keller's wages even during the Great Depression.
Greater Virginia Estate Sales, a company that specializes in assigning dollar amounts to people's lives, was retained by Keller's survivors to appraise and sell the remaining effects. Every item—from the wooden chairs Keller made in his 20s, to the suit he wore to his children's communions, to the carved coconuts he brought home as a souvenir from his service in the Philippines—was tagged and displayed at its real-world market value, which was, more often than not, surprisingly low.
Among the so-called "priceless" keepsakes that sold for a pittance was a framed wedding photo of Keller and wife Nancy, who died in 1993, that had been overlooked by the family. Priced at $4, the photo was bought by Morgantown resident Jackie Pullman, who promptly removed the picture from its silver frame and threw it in the garbage upon returning home.
Cousin Toby Cameron, who grew up with Keller, said he always thought Keller was "a real treasure" and a "valuable" member of the community. But now that the figures have been tallied, he is questioning his appraising ability.
"For over 75 years I was so far off with my estimate of the man," Cameron said. "It's a little surprising to find out that he was practically worthless. I figured we had more than $5,000 worth of good times, but I'm not the expert here."
"His passing affected me deeply," family friend Keith Baker said. "It was a real wake-up call. If all his life amounted to was the price of some Jet Skis, I need to start investing in antiques, or maybe some fine art."
The centerpiece of the sale was a 50-piece bone china set dating from the mid-1950s, known by the family as the "good dishes." Put on layaway for six months until Keller could meet the full $150 retail price, it was only used during Christmas, daughter Mary's 1965 baby shower, and son Patrick's 1971 Vietnam War homecoming. A Wheeling, WV antiques dealer bought it for $60, making it one of only two items that sold for more than one-third of its original cost. The other was an electric space-heater purchased just weeks before Keller's death.
"Henry Keller was one of a kind," longtime friend and neighbor Jack Mulley said. "He was a godsend when my boy died of leukemia. That can really shake a person up, but Henry was right there for me, and pulled me through that rough patch. I thought you couldn't put a value on friendship like that, but after picking up this pine dresser of his for only $40, I see how you can."
Toward the end of the sale's final day, some were worried that Keller's worth wouldn't break the $5,234 mark. But at the 11th hour, a teenager wandered by and purchased several half-empty bottles of aftershave and a bundle of 15 ballpoint pens wrapped in a rubber band, bringing the total to $5,235.78.
"[The estate sale] helped defray funeral costs," Tom Keller said. "After giving the estate-sale company their percentage, we only end up owing another $3,000."
"We've seen this many times before," said Greater Virginia Estate Sales associate sales supervisor Steve Helmuth, who coordinated the Keller sale. "The family is looking for $50,000 to $100,000, or some figure commensurate with their emotional attachment to the deceased. But when the possessions bring in a more realistic number, a lot of them have to drastically reassess their outlook on life, and their conclusions aren't always positive."
"Sentimentality will sometimes cause us to overvalue the worth of an individual human life," he added. "But, in the end, the numbers don't lie."