Treasured family items should stay in the family

The greatest allure of antiques, for me at least, is their connection to a time that is no more.  These mementos of the past bring back memories of what was, but is no longer.  Any antique can invoke such memories.  One of my favorite pieces is a chipped and pitted milk crock that I use for making pancake batter.  Each time I take it out of the cabinet I think about who used it in the past and what their life might have been like.  I purchased the bowl at a flea market for a couple of dollars long ago, so I know no particulars.  Still, each chip and scratch tells a story and brings me closer to those unknown, previous owners of the bowl.  Family heirlooms have a far greater power for invoking memories and bringing one closer to those who are long gone.  That is why one should never let family heirlooms get away.  

I enjoy all my antiques for their beauty, their nostalgia, and the memories of the past they summon.  The few family heirlooms I own are far more precious than any other pieces because they possess a connection to a specific time, place, and person.  I own a pie safe that once belonged to my Great-Grandmother, Mary Blackford.  I have cabinets that are far more beautiful in my collection, but the family connection makes my old pie safe more valuable to me.  It’s a connection to my own past and a memento of my great grandmother who I met only a handful of times when I was a young boy.

My favorite family heirloom is a primitive, well-used feed bin from my Grandmother’s farm.  My strongest memories of Grandmother’s farm are of that feed bin.  It sat there for decades, usually filled with corn used to feed the chickens who nested nearby.  The bin was older than that barn itself and was most likely moved from the old log barn that once sat on the property.  The bin was repaired over the years with pieces of tin nailed down over holes.  Most likely, the grandfather I never met made those repairs.  The old feed bin was a part of my family’s life even before I was.  After my grandmother passed away, her belongings were sold at a private family auction.  Only grandmother’s children were allowed to bid.  I was far away at the time, but when my father called and asked if I wanted Mom to bid on anything for me, I said, “I want the old feed bin in the barn.  Bid up to $500 on it.”  If I’d spotted a feed bin just like it in an antique store for $50, I wouldn’t have even slowed down to look at it.  I had no place for the bin and no practical use for it, but it was important to me.  The old bin was a part of my childhood.  I was very pleased when Dad called and said I owned the old feed bin.  Today, it sits in my home.  It probably isn’t worth $100, but I wouldn’t take a $1,000 for it.  If circumstance someday forces me to let it go, I’ll most likely give it to a close family member.  I’d rather pass it on to someone who’ll appreciate it than to sell it for mere cash.  My plan, however, is to hold onto the old bin and enjoy it until I pass on myself.

If you’re lucky, you probably have a family heirloom or two.  If you’re very lucky, you have several.  Take some time and think about what those pieces mean to you.  What memories do they bring to the surface?  What parts of the past do they bring back to life?  Those who are thinking about selling a family heirloom should think long and hard before making a final decision.  Unlike most antiques and collectibles, family heirlooms are irreplaceable.  One can always find another flax wheel, another Victorian settee, or another 1950s toaster.  One can never find another baker’s cabinet owned by great-grandmother.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.  

Many years ago, I wrote a question & answer column for an antiques publication.  I was amazed at the number of letters I received from those who wanted to know the value of a family heirloom so they could sell it.  My advice to all such letters was simple—Don’t!  Most of those who part with family heirlooms are sorry later.  If you do decide to part with a family heirloom, or simply must, offer it to members of your family first.  You’ll most likely find an eager buyer and might even have a chance to buy the piece back down the road if you change your mind.  That chance will be slim indeed because most people won’t part with family heirlooms, but it’s better than releasing your treasure into the wide world of antiques.

The title of this column is “Never Let Family Heirlooms Get Away.”  Never is a strong word.  Have I ever failed to heed my own advice?  Yes, but only once.  Am I sorry?  No.  This admission might seem to undermine the whole point of his column, but I thought long and hard before letting the heirloom go.  The piece in question was a rather ugly kitchen cabinet owned by my grandparents.  It was kept in their bathroom and used to hold towels and toiletries.  I always thought that cabinet was hideous.  Looking at it created no nostalgic feelings for me.  The cabinet stirred up no pleasant memories of the past.  Even so, I thought long and hard before I passed on the cabinet when my parents asked if I wanted it.  As ugly as it was in my eyes, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be sorry if I let it get away.  The old cabinet was sold years ago and all I can say is good riddance!  For me, this is the exception that proves the rule.  I own a handful of family heirlooms.  I’ll never part with any of them, but I do not miss that hideous old cabinet.  If you have such an heirloom, just make sure you won’t regret selling it.  If there is any doubt, keep it, even if it is ugly.

My advice remains.  Never let family heirlooms get away.  All antiques and collectibles provide a connection to the past, but none more so than family heirlooms.  Most of the heirlooms I own have no tangible value, but even if they were worth thousands I would not sell.  Money could not replace the old Formica kitchen table that sat in my grandmother’s kitchen.  Nothing could replace the memories of drinking hot tea and eating buttered toast on that table with my grandmother when I was a boy.  When I sit at that table, memories of things I thought I’d forgotten come back.  Without it, those memories would be lost forever.  My grandmother is gone now, but that table gives me a connection to her that will never weaken.  Most likely you have pieces that are just as special to you.  Never let them get away.