Should you keep a family heirloom or donate it?

A nice result of uncluttering is that you can sometimes find things you’ve been looking for or that you forgot you had, and you’ll get a welcome surprise when you happen upon the items. You might also come across things that have high historical value. They may be items that have great historical significance, a family heirloom, or perhaps an artifact. These items represent “the museum of you” and if they are not properly cared for (a box in the basement or attic will not suffice), they can degrade and lose their value.

You can certainly take on the responsibility of caring for these valuable pieces yourself, but you’ll likely need some help, like the book, Saving Stuff: How to Care For and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions written by Senior Conservator of the Smithsonian, Don Williams. Williams gives detailed, step-by-step instructions about how to keep your prized belongings in good condition.

Of course, before you can start the preservation process, you’ll need to decide which things to keep and which things not to keep. Taking stock of everything you have and making an inventory list is a great starting point. Then, you can use a Pro vs Con list to help you decide which items you’ll maintain yourself and which ones would be best cared for by a museum or special interest group. As you go through this process, think about:

  • How meaningful each item is to you
  • The amount of time and effort required to keep the item(s) in good condition
  • The type of equipment needed to maintain the item(s) in a pristine state

Williams suggests that you also think about whether or not you’ll be able to preserve an item “without changing its character.”

Fundamental to preserving your stuff is keeping it as it should be for as long as possible without changing what it is.

This is an important point, as changing the items will likely affect its value. If the item needs repairing, this means you will probably need to restore it and then follow up with protective measures to prevent any future damage. Depending on each item, the types of things you may need to do to preserve an heirloom might be numerous, taxing, and require specific actions. Unless you have the time to devote to keeping special items protected, you might want to hand over ownership to a museum or historical society. Doing this will help you to potentially honor the family members to whom the items belonged and reclaim your space for items that you use regularly. It can also be a way to keep those items out of harm’s way from the normal hustle and bustle of your home, particularly if you have pets or children.

Should you decide to donate an item to a museum or historical society, consider having it appraised so that you have an accurate understanding of its monetary value. Then, start looking for a specific institution that handles your particular items and what the donation requirements are.

8 Comments for “Should you keep a family heirloom or donate it?”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    For those who fear donating family heirlooms, can also consider a long-term loan to museums/historical society. They will see that your heirloom is taken care of and many people will have the opportunity to view it and appreciate it. Later, if you decide you want it back or a family member would like to become its caretaker, you have that option.

  2. posted by Dan on

    Also, please consider the importance of safely preserving the heirloom’s story, and making sure that story is accessible to all who see the item, now and in the future. After all, it’s typically only an heirloom if it has a history that people know about. The Heirloom Registry can help do just that ( Thanks for the post!

  3. posted by DebF on

    Make sure you have a discussion with any OTHER members of the family, before you make a significant change to, or donate a ‘family’ heirloom. You might consider it yours to do as you please, they may see you as holding it ‘in trust’ for future generations. It’s worth checking in, before it becomes the source of a family feud.

  4. posted by kath on

    I totally agree with Deb F. ALWAYS ask other family members if they want something before you discard it or give it away. Just because something has no meaning or value to you doesn’t mean another family member won’t cherish the family history behind it.

  5. posted by Adil on

    Please remember to get rid of firearms safely and responsibly. Now more than ever, it’s worth repeating: if you and your family realize you can’t lock great-grandpa’s gun away safely, it’s time to get rid of it. You can pawn it for pennies on the dollar, turn it over to local law enforcement, sell it legally online to an authorized buyer, or even donate it to a gun museum as a charitable gift. Get it out of your house unless you are willing to take responsibility for it.

  6. posted by klutzgrrl on

    great advice. Paper items are particularly delicate – I just cringe when I see people displaying old photographs in bright sunlight, often in cheap photo frames with highly acidic compressed wood or cardboard backing.

    The ‘story’ is important too – it only takes a generation to lose the details that make a person in a photograph relevant.

  7. posted by PMcD on

    Speaking as someone who worked for historical societies and museums for more than three decades, please don’t just donate to the local historical society. Most of those organizations are small, and already have more collections than they can properly care for with a tiny nonprofit budget and only one paid professional staff member. Your family heirlooms may not have any relevance whatever to the local historical society’s mission: to collect, preserve, and interpret local history.

    If you think something is valuable, get it appraised. If it is valuable, but not your taste, sell it through your local auction house. I’m in the process of doing that with several items that belonged to my mother and grandmother.

  8. posted by purpleBee on

    You can also choose to use practical things.

    Over the years I’ve accumulated various dinner plates, bowls, kitchenware etc from family members estates. I quite like the items.

    My relatives don’t care about the things, so I decided to use the items. In the process I gave away many of my shiny modern plates and I use mismatched plates etc at every occasion.

    I don’t mind if they break. I just enjoy getting use out of them and explaining their history if anyone asks

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