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May 21, 2013

More Issues With Passing on Family Heirlooms and Preserving Their Provenance

More Issues With Passing on Family Heirlooms and Preserving Their Provenance
Some of my family heirlooms
My blog post Documenting and Passing on Family Treasures generated a lot of discussion. Comments left made me think about other possible problems that might arise when trying to decide what to do with family heirlooms.

We genealogists have always been faced with the dilemma of what to do with our research, but for me an equally important (and perhaps urgent) question is - to whom do I give my family treasures for safekeeping and how do I ensure that any provenance is attached to each one.

One of my readers, Nicholas, made a good point when he stated that the person you choose to receive a specific heirloom should also know about and have an attachment to the ancestor who originally owned it.  Otherwise there is no guarantee they will cherish the item.

I agree with Nicholas but we also have to accept that there is no guarantee an item will be cherished and preserved no matter who we choose. For all we know our beloved heirloom will be put up for auction or as my friend and fellow blogger Midge stated sold on eBay.  I know - it's a terrible thought! But we do have to realize that could happen.

Another issue is what if none of our children are the least bit interested and our grandchildren are too young for any determination to be made. Do we just go ahead and assign specific family items to individual family members using our best judgement? Or should we assign them all to one person and request that they in turn pass on individual items as they become aware of interest from other family members?

Now for the most difficult determination - using my husband as an example. He has no children of his own. He has no nieces or nephews to leave his family heirlooms to. But he has an incredible wealth of family treasures and intimate knowledge of each ancestor who owned these treasures. He has a huge number of old family photos, all identified. So what happens to his heirlooms?

He could donate his photos to the St. Mary's Museum which is where his family lived for generations. That would be a very good repository.  But what about the physical objects? Would the Museum want his great-great grandfather's Baptismal Mug? Would they want his baby blanket crocheted by his great grandmother? Perhaps they would because all the ancestors who made or bought these items lived in St. Mary's their entire lives. But he also owns many items of furniture - a large pine hutch, parlour tables, paintings done by his grandmother and great-grandmother, his great-grandfather's handmade blanket box and so on.

His last recourse would be to leave the items to my children or my grandchildren. But would they really care about the items and their step-father or step-grandfather's ancestors who owned them? I'm sure my children would treasure the furniture as a lovely antique but whether or not the history of the item and the story of the person who owned it would be kept is doubtful. So perhaps that would have to be enough - that the item itself would be treasured as an antique and passed on to the next generation.

What are your thoughts on these issues?


Unknown said...

My husband is step-grandfather to my 3 grandchildren; the two oldest (cousins) discount the "step" part of the relationship; my first husband never appeared in their lives, there step-grandfather is the only grandfather they have known on my side of the family.

I think that if that is how the step-grandchildren feel, then the blood relationship is not an issue. I am also saying that each family is different and you need to consider those differences in your decision.

Lorie ~ Ferndale Lane Vintage said...

I can totally understand! I am the genealogist in my family. I'm 40 yrs old and have been doing genealogy for almost 20 years. About 10 yrs ago my mothers first cousin in Vermont gave me copies of her grandmother's (my great grandmother) diaries from 1914-1924 and 1960-1968. I loved having the scanned copies! Then last year, another of my mothers first cousins from Colorado asked me if I wanted the originals. I almost passed out. So now I am the keeper of my great grandma Catherine's diaries. My mom's cousin knew her own children and grandchildren did not want the diaries so she reached out to me. I have instructed my now 17 year old son to hold onto them until he finds someone in the family who would want them.... If I don't find that person first.

Susan Clark said...

As one who lives in a house that qualifies for shrine status, I have very mixed feelings about burdening my children, niece or cousins with preserving every item that my mother or older relative cherished. Frankly, I don't believe it all should be kept. It has taken years to cull the items my loved ones left behind. We need to make space for those to come.

That said, I am documenting the furniture, rugs, paintings, dishes, silver, clothing, tools, linens, books, kitchenware, etc. with photographs and provenance. Right now it is saved on my computer, but I plan to do a couple Shutterfly-style books. I ought to do something for the executors, too. My hope is that my heirs and relatives will all find something they love and want; something that will give them a sense of connection to their family without demanding they act as curator for the shrine of ancestors. I have selected one piece of furniture for each child - my great-grandmother's pie safe goes to my daughter. The bed my great-grandfather made for my grandmother goes to my son. After that, it's up to them. I would be thrilled if they could sell off what they don't want to others to use and enjoy. Some days I am tempted to sell it all myself and throw one gigantic party.

Lynne Carothers said...

My husband and I are also concerned with this problem. We have two unmarried boys who don't seem to be very interested in the family heirlooms at this point. They are in their early twenties and that might change. To hopefully help increase their interest, I am making photobooks picturing each heirloom, listing its location and including an accompanying story about it. I have not yet decided if I am going to enter the family treasures in The Heirloom Registry. If I do, that information will also be included. We will give each son a copy of the photobook and also keep one with our will. We will write a final passage saying to our sons that we hope they treasure these items and pass them on to their own children, carrying the stories forward. However, we will also say that if they choose not to do so, they should try to be sure that other more distant relatives receive them.

Will all this help? We don't know. It gives us comfort knowing we have done our best.

Perhaps our decisions will help others solve similar problems.

Lynne Carothers

Lyn Brown said...

The ideas presented here are wonderful food for thought. Currently, I'm in my fifties and not sure who among our children and other relatives might want to inherit our treasures.
In the event that some end up sold or donated, I've started attaching a written history to each object whenever possible. For instance, a dress and cape worn by my grandfather and his cousin before him in the 1800s wasn't suitable for museum donation so I had it beautifully framed and attached it's history on the back.
It gives me solace to know that anyone outside our family who is attracted to the heirloom will also likely appreciate its past.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Lynn I love your idea of framing the dress and cape along with the written history. I am sure someone in your family will one day be very happy to have that!

I framed my dad's WW2 photo in uniform, his medals, his cap badge, then had a silver plaque made with his name and rank, then framed them all. Otherwise I figured the small items would be lost over the years as no one would know who had owned them.