Glittering antiques and vintage trash: A day in the life of a San Antonio estate salesman

Top Hat estate sales. 

Top Hat estate sales. 

Courtesy of Robert Albert

Robert Albert has a sense of humor — a quality you must possess when you’ve advertised your livelihood at funeral homes. 

He’ll often morbidly joke with his regular clients “the junk people” who drop over $300 dollars a month following his estate sale business across central Texas. Before sending them off with their latest treasure, he’ll usually tack on a quippy: “Thank you for investing in your children's futures. Here’s my card, feel free to staple it to your will.”

"It's life, it's what's gonna happen," he says with a smirk. 

You may spend the occasional Saturday morning at the thrift, driving around your neighborhood like a vulture, searching for the occasional yard or estate sale. You have nothing on 37-year-old Albert.

Albert is the owner and operator at Top Hat Estate Sales and Thrift-ique — his brick-and mortar store that opened in his hometown of Floresville seven months ago. 

For the past 12 years, Albert has devoted his life to dealing in rarities, antiques and in-vogue vintage trash. 

Normally, he has a special task force of five employees, each with their own specialty knowledge to share. For larger sales, he dials in a crew of 15 on-call retirees. When approaching a given property, they all help him take inventory of items, organize, identify, photograph, price and sell. 

There's Andy, who is particularly knowledgeable about toys and collectibles. Michael is really good with musical instruments. Herman, Albert's father, is an authority in mechanics. Curtis lends his eye to gold and silver jewelry. Ken is the resource for old kitchenware. Anna Lee is chief of presentation, arranging and organizing. 

This week, he and his trusty team are out in La Vernia, excavating the estate of a man who worked for San Antonio's Pearl Brewery for 35 years. Digging through his belongings, they discovered that the deceased was a collector of his company's brand. Now, Albert is reselling vintage signs, saltshakers, glasses and Pearl-branded windbreaker jackets (still in the packaging) minted from 1960s through the 1980s. 

"We're selling a Pearl collection I've never dealt with before. In my 12 years, I've never seen this much Pearl memorabilia," says Albert. 

"This is a dream sale. This is one of those sales where you just really enjoy going through the house and, you know, going through someone's life." 

A portion of the estate of a man who worked at San Antonio's Pearl Brewery for 35 years. 

A portion of the estate of a man who worked at San Antonio's Pearl Brewery for 35 years. 

Courtesy of Robert Albert
A line forms outside of an estate's first day on the market in La Vernia, Texas. 

A line forms outside of an estate's first day on the market in La Vernia, Texas. 

Courtesy of Robert Albert

Most of  his clients learn of his mobile resale business through word of mouth. On opening day of this particular sale, a massive line formed outside the property. The Top Hat team managed to distribute 368 tickets. 

Usually the business runs two to three estate sales a month, plus one pop-up sale at the store. These items are typically purchased from small or restricted estates where an in-person sale isn't feasible. 

"Imagine you're leaving your home today and never going back to it," says Albert. " It makes people think for a minute, you know: what would they find? That's what we find."

His personal collection casts a wide net. He particularly loves San Antonio memorabilia and local pottery. Also in his merry possession are hundreds of boxes of vintage Christmas decorations. 

Living in downtown San Antonio, his home has come to be the belle of the ball during his neighborhood's holiday home tour. 

"In this business, it's very easy to become a hoarder," he says. 

Albert's story is one that of a man abandoning a depressing job to follow his dreams. Before Top Hat, the Floresville native began his antique journey buying and selling finds across the flea market circuit, places like Bussey's and Mission Open Air Market, to earn a little extra cash. From there, he fell in love with it. Soon after he went into business with friends, before later going his separate way to venture into the wonderful world of estate sales. 

Top Hat has been poking around properties since 2017. 

Top Hat estate sales. 

Top Hat estate sales. 

Courtesy of Robert Albert

While it stems from a love of snooping through other people's trash and treasure, Albert now appreciates the service he provides,  meeting people in their darkest hours, making the process easier, and taking the burden off their shoulders. 

Naturally, when dealing with a family's drama, it's easy to suddenly become a person of interest. 

Albert mentions two on-the-clock run-ins with the authorities. Sometimes, estate executor's will instruct him to keep the door closed on angry extended family members while the Top Hat team is evaluating the house. On these occasions, odd family members, displeased that they were left out of the will, dialed the cops.  

"I would say 90% of the families are just so happy to have somebody come in and do this for them that it really, it really outweighs the problems," says Albert. 

Currently, Albert is in the process of developing a YouTube channel, where antique-curious people can watch him and his crew dig for treasure through old barns and homes. You can call him if you or a loved one  is about to kick the bucket. Or, can find him on Instagram, where he often goes live. 

Albert tells me he finds that old rock ’n’ roll records and '70s vintage clothing are currently hot ticket items, especially for the younger crowd that has grown up in an age where commercial products are destined to fall a part. The trends at the sales are ever changing though. Next week they'll be at the shop in Floresville, the week after that — the Terrell Hills neighborhood in San Antonio

Albert has learned that some people are always on the chase, pursuing a new (or new to them) shiny fascination.

"I think they have a little missing link in their life. And that fulfills it, and it comforts them," says Albert.

"When they're down, who doesn't love shopping?"