Beware of Snowballing Family Lore

I would be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time I heard a family member tell the story of an heirloom in which the story gets bigger and better with every telling.  It’s like the old parable, “The fish that got away was THIS big …” and every time the story is told, the fish miraculously gets bigger.

So too is the challenge we professionals have with discussing and valuating family heirlooms.  I visit clients in their homes and enjoy each of them and listening to their stories.  However, I know what the values really are, regardless of the verbal family stories.  The hard part for me, and for the client, is providing proof that the following really took place: “Did you know Abraham Lincoln sat in that chair?”  “This belt buckle belonged to Robert E. Lee.”  “Our grandmother told us Teddy Roosevelt took a picture with daddy, but we don’t know where that picture went.”  We know what these items are worth on a monetary level, but you can’t place a value on sentimentality.  Sentimentality is priceless and in the mind of the beholder.

Could some of these family stories actually be true?  Perhaps they are, but without provenance, or history of the piece (proof of some kind, like a photo of Abraham Lincoln really sitting in that chair), it leaves a question mark and is difficult to valuate.  Without proof, we can only appraise what we see based on its’ characteristics.

I look back into my experiences with all kinds of families and wonder why most people seem to exaggerate about old possessions.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • It’s their version of the truth as they see it.
  • For attention. (I have something special.)
  • To accentuate the positive.
  • To make the mundane more exciting.

Maybe Abraham Lincoln did sit in that chair.  Or maybe he sat in one just like it and that’s how the story got convoluted.  Someone heard what they wanted to hear, and generations of tongues did the rest.

I don’t want you to be disappointed when you go to sell these items and the prices brought don’t match the stories behind the piece.  If your items mean that much to you, hold on to them and do your best to research the history of that piece for generations to come.

© 2012 Julie Hall

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great post!


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