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laureth's avatar

Where do heirlooms go when you have no kids?

Asked by laureth (27199points) October 2nd, 2011

My family has been having fewer kids every generation. I’m the only one in my generation, and I’m apparently not having any. Yet we have some wonderful family heirlooms that I always thought I’d pass down. Are they pretty much destined to be sold at some antique/flea market to someone who has no idea of their heritage, who will probably strip, refinish, and paint them some nasty color?

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38 Answers

Male's avatar

Hell no. I’d clutch them in my hands forever! Even if you have no one to pass it down to, you can always “pass it on” to someone significant, or maybe even someone close enough to you that you’d call family. Who knows who you might meet in the nearby or faraway future?

Coloma's avatar

If one is dead who cares what becomes of your “stuff.”?

Stuff is just stuff, regardless of heirloom status which is just a silly mental construct.

I went through a huge shift in liberating myself from attachment to material items some years ago.

I enjoy a nicely furnished home but as far as what becomes of my stuff, I could care less.

My daughter is free to do whatever she wants with my stuff. Keep it, sell it, give it away.

Being concerned that someone might paint your stuff a color that you find offensive and not be attached to the story of the item, well…why would they be? It’s your story.

If they want to strip down the piece and paint it purple, I say, have fun!

They would be getting just as much pleasure out of their creativity as you do the story of the items heritage.

If this bothers you too much I’d take a look at your control issues.
Trying to control from beyond the grave takes dysfunction to a whole new level. lol

JilltheTooth's avatar

Maybe your husband’s family has some young people that might be interested in the stories and history of the heirlooms, sort of “collateral” passing down if you will.

Really, @Coloma ? Ascribing “control issues” and “dysfunction” to someone because they might value the symbols of their family history? What a wild judgment you make. Geez.

Coloma's avatar


It’s not a wild judgment, just sayin’ that stuff is just that, stuff, and that we can’t control what happens to our stuff after we die.

If there are no relatives that want it, then….it’s out of ones hands.

I make a valid point about learning to let go of trying to control outcomes.

I have a custom portrait I had commissioned of one of my pets a few years ago, I always joke that his portrait will end up in a thrift store and no one will ever know the story behind it. I’m okay with that, it’s part of the humor of life. No offense intended.

What happens to our stuff after we die is out of our hands so why waste energy trying to control it?
Just my 2 cents.

Cruiser's avatar

Will them to a friends child you feel would cherish these wonderful pieces you have.

laureth's avatar

Hi Coloma. Thank you for your input, and I’m glad you’re able to not care about your things. I’d like to be as spiritually advanced as that, but that is not the direction I’m coming from. I don’t desire to control people from beyond the grave, though. It’s more about honoring my ancestors, although I suppose that’s a silly mental construct also.

Just before WWII when my grandma turned 16, my great-grandpa (her dad) commissioned some of this stuff to be made for her 16th birthday. It was precious to her, and I treasure her memory by using it.

My great-great grandfather was a cabinet maker in Germany. He did fine wood inlay, beautiful like you wouldn’t believe. My aunt has a couple of his works, and I will have them someday. But if they are passed on without the story, it might be easy to not know how precious they are, and think, “Oh, they do fine Chinese sweatshop work nowadays.”

These things, in and of themselves, are valuable. The memory and honor make them moreso. I know I can’t control what happens to them after my death, and they might end up painted purple, in someone’s flooded basement. But I’d like to prevent that. If I didn’t, I might as well just pile them up and set fire to it right now, and take a load off of my mind.

gailcalled's avatar

Or, find a worthy recipient, such as an independent school or a small college in your ‘hood.

When I was at college, I spent a lot of time in a little astronomy observatory. It had oriental rugs and lovely old antique furniture.

The observatory is now double the original size with lots of mod/cons but the original classroom remains the same. My former husband and I used to find dance music on the BBC (it was a short-wave radio then) and swirl around the room when we had the place to ourselves.

Another thought is to find some surrogate kids along the way. I have several in my life now and they are young adults. You could distribute some of your treasures (with the attribution and the history) to them.

chyna's avatar

These items are are links to our past, to our heritage. They shouldn’t die with us. It’s not a matter of “control from the graveyard”, it’s a matter of preserving the past, and bringing it into the future.
@Coloma Just because you have come to terms with what you perceive as “stuff is just stuff” doesn’t mean everyone should or will. To dismiss @laureth‘s concerns so offhandedly is a little rude. lol.

Coloma's avatar


Perhaps you can find a bed and breakfast or other antique style decor business that would welcome those pieces as an addition to their authentic antique decor.

There is a restaurant and hotel near me that originated during the gold rush era and all their furnishings are antique from the 1840’s on up to about the turn of the century.

Maybe check into your local historical society, we also have several historic homes that have been renovated for their historical value. These might be a few options.

GabrielsLamb's avatar

To the Goodwill… and then to ME!

Kayak8's avatar

I have started writing down the history that I know about each heirloom item and keeping them in a file with a photo of the item. In this way, when I later choose to give items, I will give a copy of my record with the item and keep a copy for myself with information about who I gave it to.

I have asked my mom to do the same thing as I don’t know as much history as she does about a number of items in her home.

Coloma's avatar


No dismissal intended, just sharing a grain of truth, how we all come to view the meaning of “stuff” is certainly ones own journey.

laureth's avatar

Folks, I hadn’t even thought of a college or bed and breakfast or such places. Those are swell ideas, thanks very! My husband also has some relatives…. but I’m not sure they’d be interested in these items.

gailcalled's avatar

@laureth: Blood or not, they must be worthy which translated into appreciating and caring for.

Start a written history of the provenance to accompany everything.

Hibernate's avatar

I was about to say what @Cruiser suggested. Give them to someone who will cherish [be it a distant relative or a close friend].

zensky's avatar

They say you can’t take it with you.

prolificus's avatar

Idea: create a website for people in similar situations to post pictures of their heirlooms and tell stories about them. Could link the website with Ancestory{dot}com to see if there are any long, lost relatives, etc. etc. This could lead to a couple of things: (1) an online museum for the every-day person, (2) a way to say who is going to get what heirloom someday, and (3) a way to earn money (especially if you connect the website to eBay, or whatever).

To whomever develops this idea, I got proof of coming up with it, so I’d better get a cut in the action!! <wink wink>

flutherother's avatar

When my mother died she left many photograph albums, some containing pictures of people we knew but others were of people we didn’t know or who meant little or nothing to us. They had been precious to my mother and she had carefully labelled them but their significance has gone. We kept them, but they are like shadows of the sunshine.

As Frank Zappa put it “It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.”

HungryGuy's avatar

They go to whoever you give them to in your will. Otherwise, if you have no will, then yes, they’ll be sold at an estate auction.

YARNLADY's avatar

You might consider a local history museum. It depends on where they came from. I have a vintage library table that would make a great addition to the local museum of the town it was made in.

Kardamom's avatar

Almost all of my friends collect different things, and they all know other people that collect all sorts of things. The trick is to start talking to friends or other worthy people now to get some ideas about where to leave your stuff after you are gone. Your next door neighbor may love old lace tablecloths, or maybe her grand daughter does. Someone you work with might collect craftsman era chairs or lamps, or maybe their neice does. Start conversations with people that you like and love and tell them your story, you’d be surprised by how many people that you know, or people close to those people, collect and love all sorts of things.

The other alternative is to speak with a representative at either a historical society, either in the town where you live, or in various towns from where the items originated, and see if they are interested and able (make sure it’s both) to not only accept the item, but to make sure that it is cared for and not simply sold off as a fundraiser (unless you’re OK with that).

Another alternative is to talk to other charitable organizations to whom you would like to donate and again, be very specific when you talk to the representatives to let them know that you have items that you would like to donate, either for them to keep or for them to auction off to make money. Just be clear about what you want the organization to do with your donation and if they’re able to accomodate you.

Some libraries and colleges also accept donations of items in a collection, to put on display. Ask around and see if this is something that you might be interested in doing.

And of course there are museums (other than historical society organizations) that might be willing to accept some of the items. Just be very clear with them (in a contract with your donation upon your death) whether you want them to keep the item in their collection, whether you expect it to be put on display, or whether you are willing to let them sell the items at auction, to purchase other items that are better suited to their specific collections. The registrars and curators at museums are the people that you want to talk to first. You also should talk to some type of lawyer that handles your will or living trust to help you choose the right kind of contract and “last wish” instructions for your will or trust. And then, let your SO or anyone else who needs to know, what your plans are, so it doesn’t come as a big surprise at the end. : )

Jeruba's avatar

In your place and feeling as you do, I believe I would give them away (or sell them) during my lifetime. That’s your best chance of finding people who will adopt them lovingly. There is never a guarantee that others will treasure things as you have, but some people might value them as a memento of you.

I doubt that anyone but me can look at the big old oaken rocking chair I moved here from my late mother’s house and see my grandfather sitting in it. That ghost belongs to me. But someone might prize the chair for itself. If my sons don’t want it, they will be free to do with it as they please.

YARNLADY's avatar

My DIL was complaining because I put a cover over my vintage library table to protect it. She made snide remarks about my precious table. I finally said “If you don’t that table as part of my estate, which you will inherit, I’ll sell it now and keep the cash for myself. If you do want it, it will keep it’s value only if it is protected.”

Since then, I have seen how they have trashed everything in their house, including the house, which we bought them and are making the payments on. I am pretty sure I will sell the table when I have an opportunity.

gailcalled's avatar

And this question reminded me of the objects I have in my home that had been someone else’s treasured possession.

A hand-painted armoire made in the mid-eighteenth century somewhere in Alsace-Lorraine

An English country cupboard to hold my nice china (from my mother and grandmother) and glassware (purchased by me.)

A large 19th brass scale used for objects weighing over 30 lbs…I have no idea what they were.

A Stickley Oak rocking chair

(If I weren’t busy, I’d take photos.)

Jeruba's avatar

And your answer reminds me, @gailcalled: one of my treasures is a gorgeous antique hand-painted Limoges tea set from Tresseman & Vogt, circa 1900. I purchased it from a dealer in antique porcelain that I found online while doing research. The set is in perfect condition, from delicate violets to gilded trim, with nary a scratch or chip or spot of wear.

I don’t know anything of the original owner. I don’t know the history of the pieces except as porcelain; i.e., I don’t know their provenance or family connections. There were not passed down to me and I have no personal link to their past. And yet—I love them and treasure them, and they will be valuable heirlooms when I pass them on. Their prior clean slate won’t matter or impair their beauty in any way because they can be seen and appreciated for what they are.

laureth's avatar

Semi-update: My aunt, who is going through my recently-deceased grandfather’s things, has just offered me my great-grandma’s 1921 good crystal. I have no place to put it and would never use it, but she says that if I don’t take it, she’ll ship it to the Salvation Army. I can already see the set broken up, with “25¢” written on each piece in red grease-pencil, some of the fragile champagne glasses dropped by children and broken. So I’ll end up taking them out of guilt, and keeping them in a box in the basement where someone will find them when I die. Sigh.

bkcunningham's avatar

No, @laureth, take it and love it and use it! What a treasure. If you don’t take it and get some pleasure (even if it is to display it a window or on a shelf or whereever it looks beautiful) you are putting your aunt and your grandmother in the position you asked about yourself.

I think you just answered your own question really. You give it to someone who knows something about you and your past and has a connection to you through love, and you hope they enjoy it and that they add to its history and stories and then pass it on…chips and all.

prolificus's avatar

Ever watch “Storage Wars” on A&E? Just sayin’.

gailcalled's avatar

@laureth: If nothing else, let your cat have his canned food served in a crystal goblet, similar to the Persian cat who had a butler serve him the Fancy Food in his own leaded glass.

laureth's avatar

Hee! If I ever am lucky enough to be owned by a cat, I shall consider doing exactly that. :)

laureth's avatar

This is the original owner of the crystal. I bet she would Not Be Amused… but I am. :)

gailcalled's avatar

Link doesn’t work. I’d like to get at look at granny.

ibstubro's avatar

I’m the end of my line too.

When I moved last, I called my favorite cousin and invited her and her just-coming-of-age daughter over. I had rowed up all the family treasures that had been passed to me. I told her, “Now, here’s the deal. You can have anything or nothing, it makes me no difference. I have finished with these things, and they are going to live with someone else.” Then I went down the row and told her who had given me what, and under what circumstance. She very shyly took everything and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I had fulfilled my commitment to givers of those items.

Don’t forget, people don’t have to be family to be special in your life. I encourage you to keep the items on display, and when someone you favor and trust admires them, give the heirlooms a good home. It’s just stuff…we own none of it, we’re just temporary stewards. Your responsibility to your family is to see that the stuff remains cherished.


laureth's avatar

Thank you! This problem still bothers me. (I guess I just need lots of people to favor and trust…)

ibstubro's avatar

OMG! @laureth I love your question. I DO NOT want you to wantonly give away your family heirlooms, but I think you need to broaden “family”.

laureth's avatar

Tried to have kids, couldn’t. :(

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