Everything’s Relative – Value of Heirlooms

By his death in 2010, Carrie Fisher’s dad, Eddie, had little to show for his singing skills: a small cottage, a piano with sheet music, some clothes…and a pinky diamond ring he never took off. (Drugs, multiple women and careless spending for decades will do that to you.)

“This famously flashy multi-faceted diamond ring was the one and only item that any of us wanted,” Carrie documented in her book, Shockaholic. “And I thought it only fair(ish) that, since I was the main one of us to look after him in his declining years, this ring should go to me…” She even wore it to Eddie’s memorial service, to the envy of her half-sisters.

A few weeks later, she decided to have the ring appraised. Her “hoped-for legacy of not quite inestimable value” was…

Seven or eight karats of cubic zirconium.

Carrie was cool with it, since she loved her father: “Karats or no, the thing sparkles.” (Although she couldn’t bring herself to tell her siblings. I assume they know now.) The point is clear: we may covet things that aren’t worth nearly the energy we put into them. Like jewelry. (Ok, gold might be worth the effort. Diamonds, not so much.)

Family heirlooms fall into this uncertain category. Great Aunt Tilly’s sterling silver tea set may have gathered dust on your top shelf for decades, under the theory of “it’s too precious to touch.”

For one, it may not be that rare or valuable. (Many of these sets were only plated silver, and they were manufactured in large quantities.) For another, if it’s well made (and quality pieces are), it can handle gentle use. Antiques like these won’t be treasured by anyone else unless they have happy memories of it. I’ve evaluated far too many quilts that were found stuffed in a box or chest after a parent’s death, with no idea where they came from, or who made them. What a waste.

It makes sense to have a piece appraised. For one, it tells you right away if it is worth what you thought. (Or, in the case of the $50,000 Kashmir Moon Shawl, originally purchased at a garage sale, a whole lot more!) For another, the appraiser can often give you tips on storing and caring for your item.

But like Eddie’s ring, the piece’s real value may come from something else.

Some months back, I bought a flow blue cup and saucer set. The Gaudy Welsh cup is larger, with no handle — typical of 1840s era cups. It sits on a deep saucer lavishly decorated with strawberries and gold leaves. (Why the depth? Because people would often pour their tea into the saucer to cool it– then slurp it from there, as well.)

What sold it, in my eyes, though, was a strip of masking tape underneath the saucer. In old-fashioned script, it says “Grandmother Wagoner.” Some time later, I realized that the cup had a fine hairline crack down one side. No matter. It is worth keeping, for the sake of the grandmother who drank from it for so many years.

Do you have a family heirloom you cherish? Take it down. Get it out, and use it….carefully. Now, for its sake — and yours.

This post is by staff writer Cindy Brick. Cindy has several published books and many published articles on a variety of subjects. You can visit her business website at CindyBrick.com or visit her personal blog.

8 thoughts on “Everything’s Relative – Value of Heirlooms”

  1. I enjoyed “Buried Treasure,” the show Eric is referencing. The Keno twins were probably more fun because they didn’t always choose the same ‘treasures,’ or agree 100% with each other. (The bane of the appraiser — we all have our own opnions!)

    An article about them is here:


    I also saw the episode Eric is referencing. A young couple had a roomful of antiques they never used, inherited from the guy’s grandmother. (I’m guessing that Wife didn’t like Grandma much, based on her dismissive attitude about the whole thing.) Grandma had a fairly discerning eye, and some of the items in the room were outstanding — like prints from John Audubon. Graham Arader, another dealer, is pricing the same Flamingo print as shown on the episode at nearly $200,000 — way more than the Kenos were suggesting!

  2. Have you ever watched that show that Fox used to have with the appraiser twins? One guy had a room just packed full of crap from his grandmother that was never touched, but had “sentimental value” and had to be pushed to sell so he and his wife could afford the family they had birthed. I can understand having sentimental value if it’s something that you used or displayed prominently, but when paintings are covered by towels in the corner of an unused room, or trinkets are tossed into a drawer in the same room, I have a hard time making a connection.

      1. To my knowledge it’s not on any more, but from the few episodes I did see, it really was eye opening. It just goes to show that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, and what one person has buried in a basement as junk someone else sees as treasure and will pay top dollar for it.

  3. I don’t have a family heirloom or anything that has been passed down to me yet, but I always wondered if I did if I would keep it for the meaning or sell it and use that money for something for my family and I.

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