close up photo of the drawer of an antique bureau

Heirlooms: The Value Trap

Once upon a time I hosted a little workshop about decluttering. In which one participant gave me dozens of justifications as to why she wasn't willing to part with anything. It's possible she was in the wrong room.

To each her own; I don't care how you live your life. But I was concerned about one of her reasons for holding on to things: "My parents' stuff is way too valuable to donate."

Oh, poor misguided soul! I gently suggested that some of the things that people used to pay a lot for aren't so valuable any more, but she wasn't having it. My heart sank further when she described her inherited art. "They paid thousands of dollars for some of these paintings!"

This is what I refer to as the value trap, and it rears its briny head frequently during decluttering discussions, but never as much as when we're talking inheritance.

A few years ago my own mother died, and my sisters and I shouldered the task of emptying her house. My parents were art lovers and collectors, so there was a LOT to manage.

Such prudent people! They'd had an appraisal done about twenty years previously. The local auction house sent someone out to photograph and research all of their art and antiques and estimate their value.

We asked the same company to take a look to give us an approximation of what we were looking at in 2018.

The answer? Everything had lost value. The furniture, in particular. Lovely antiques which were in terrific shape and which had commanded high prices in the 70's, 80's and 90's had become the black sheep of the decorating world.


And not a penny more.

So, if you're holding on to things that belonged to your forebears because you know they paid a lot for them, or because they're very old but in great repair, be prepared for disappointment.

A quick trip through Instagram will confirm that people are snapping up mid-century modernist furnishings. But you're not going to see a lot of housewares and décor that were produced before 1950 or after 1975.

Obviously there are exceptions. If you've got items from famous designers or manufacturers you might own a gem of an outlier. Hooray! But your stuff has to have some distinction, and you'll have to prove it.

Here's where to start: market research.

If you have information about where your things came from (i.e., who designed and made them) all the better. Start looking on sites like eBay or Ruby Lane to see what similar items are selling for. (The key is to determine what price they're fetching, which is not necessarily the listing price.)

If you think you've got some valuable items, find a reputable appraiser. You can use an online search tool, but please! make sure you get local references. Realtors are also good resources for this type of referral.

So what about my workshop attendee's inherited paintings?  Here's hoping she's ready to play Sherlock Holmes.

Valuing artwork can be tricky. Lucky for us The Smithsonian American Art Museum has some advice. In short, do as much research as you can with the information you've got, but ultimately you'll probably want to hire an appraiser. (Follow the link for more guidance.)

One note on appraisals: beware of "free" offers.

The people who are eager to work for free may be more interested in what they can earn by selling your art than in giving you their unbiased opinion. Shocking, I know!

A final note about value. You might have an antique bedpan in the back of the garage that's worth $1000. (Unlikely, I know, but bear with me.) As long as it sits in your garage it's not building up your savings account. Owning potentially valuable things isn't going to make you rich - selling things that are actually valuable is.

When my clients talk to me about selling things, I give them this advice: be honest with yourself.

What are the chances that you're actually going to put that bedpan on eBay? Remember, in order to sell something you've got to do at least a little research into what similar items are selling for, you have to photograph it, post it, answer inquiries, and then either ship the item or meet up with potential buyers.

If you're down for that kind of time and energy commitment, go for it! But if that sounds exhausting and stressful, let it go. Same same for yard sales! They tend to take a lot of time and net very little money - unless you're selling some really great stuff at good prices.

The value trap can get us with things we've purchased ourselves, too.

I want you to remember that the money you or your mother or your great-uncle spent on something is GONE. Stubbornly clinging to possessions because you feel like they should be worth a lot of money isn't helping your bank account and it's definitely contributing to your clutter problem.

Take a deep breath, let the things go. They're just things. I'll bet you forget about them within minutes of dropping them at the donation center door.