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A White Elephant Sale is a collection of used items being sold by commonly but not always a non-professional group of individuals or a group or team of individuals, much akin to a yard sale or garage sale, but more often than not usually as a fund-raiser for a various cause.
White Elephant Sales are typically organized by non-profit organizations such as churches and schools to raise money for a charity cause or a special occasion like Easter or Mother's Day. The name stems from the type of items often sold, which are often referred to as white elephants. They operate in a manner similar to Salvation Army thrift shops. Members or friends of the organization holding the White Elephant Sale will donate old items which they no longer use, or otherwise no longer care to own.
After amassing a sizable number of items, a sale will be held, usually lasting more than one day in a public fete style. Volunteers often run checkouts, and organize the elephants to be sold. Items are sold at low prices, as many are obsolete or useful to only certain people, and would not otherwise be sold.
White Elephant Sales are often useful to buyers and collectors, because they provide a way to purchase older and harder to find items. In the days before online auction and trading websites, White Elephant Sales, along with thrift stores, yard sales and pawn shops were popular ways to procure collectibles and odd items not available in retail stores.
Problems can arise with White Elephant Sales in that a great deal of space is required to hold items to be sold. Even more problematic is many items will not be sold one year, but in the case of an annual sale, will be retained to be sold the next year. This requires a large amount of space to be dedicated to the extended storage of the items.
Other problems include the inability to move merchandise, or the little money produced by the sale, despite its low (or nonexistent) initial investment. Additionally, many items donated are often not worth selling, as they are broken, or clearly worthless, and donated only so the previous owner can dispense with them.
White Elephant Sales also often carry the reputation of selling kitsch items.
The "White Elephant" part of this term came from the nature of owning a white elephant in the Asian country of Siam (modern day Thailand).
To this day an albino elephant provides nothing to the owner other than the honor of owning it, yet it still eats and takes work to maintain. The parallel in the sale is that the items are of no use to those selling them but at the same time retain some value. In the case of a "White Elephant Sale" the value is for the new owner. In the case of a royal White Elephant in Thailand, it is for the honor bestowed by the king upon the owner.