Is Your Family’s Stuff Worth Anything?

If you or your parents are downsizing, you may want to purge, even family heirlooms. Here’s how to find out if those old things have any monetary value.

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Stuff, stuff, everywhere you look. At your parents’ place – and possibly your own – you can’t help but notice the plethora of knick-knacks, artwork, dinnerware and furniture. What will you do with it all during the next downsize?

Maybe you can get a lot of money for that fancy silverware that’s been in the family for three generations. Could the Royal Doulton figurine so prized by your grandparents have any value at all? And even if this stuff is worth anything, who will buy it?

“Most of what we have in our homes certainly will not add up to much from a monetary perspective,” says Julie Hall, a U.S.-based professional estate contents expert and author of The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff.

Firstly, both the Boomers and their parents are downsizing, and are flooding the market with their precious possessions, watering down their value.

“Couple all this with children and grandchildren who are not interested in grandmother’s possessions,” says Hall.

Searching for rare items

In some cases, though, you will get an Antiques Roadshow-like revelation where an inherited object is worth much more than you ever dreamed of, says Kelly Juhasz, principal of Fine Art Appraisal and Services in Toronto and president of the Canadian chapter of the International Society of Appraisers. She once assessed a painting for insurance purposes that had been in a family for 20 years.

The next generation should talk to their parents, gather stories and family history about the objects, and enjoy the discovery.

“It proved to be by a Dutch Master and the client found themselves to be the caretaker of a million-dollar painting,” she says.

To find out if your trove has any value, get the back story.

“The next generation should talk to their parents, gather stories and family history about the objects, and enjoy the discovery,” Juhasz says. “Spend the time to take a good look at the objects. Determine if there is documentation about where and when the objects were acquired by a family member.”

More than money

In some cases, you’ll want to keep an item for sentimental, rather than monetary, value. Juhasz recently valued a 100-piece dinner set that a client intended to leave to their adult children. It was only worth about $1200, but it turned out that the china, which had been in the family for four generations, had a rich back story – it was once used in an Austrian castle.

“One son liked the story so much he decided he would be the caretaker of the dinner service,” she says.

For items that seem to have potential, work with an appraiser to get a sense of their value. Things like historical importance, rarity, desirability – some items are trendy, some are out of favour – workmanship and the object’s condition impact what it’s worth.

A professional can also help you understand how the resale market works, and what you might have to do to sell your items, if that’s what you want to do. They might have suggestions for restoring a painting or, conversely, leaving a rare but damaged antique table intact, all to get the maximum price.

Get everyone on board

If you do end up wanting to sell some items, make sure that everyone’s on board. It’s easy to develop sentimental attachments to things, like an old coin collection or even an ugly painting. Hall suggests taking a compassionate approach that involves communicating about the family’s plans for their possessions.

“Do it now and rest easy later,” she says. “Talk openly from a place of love, put everything in writing, understand current market values using vetted sources and you’ll avoid all kinds of issues later.”

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