How to Preserve the History of a Family Heirloom

There's sentimental value and then there's financial value. Both are worthy of preservation.
There's sentimental value and then there's financial value. Both are worthy of preservation.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

From the time we're children, we're told stories about poignant, family possessions that will be ours one day. These heirlooms can be of great financial value, like jewelry or a coin collection. But often, heirlooms are passed on because of their sentimental value. To their owners, they're priceless. If you're the lucky recipient of such a family heirloom, here are some tips for preserving its history.

Recording Stories About Heirlooms

Recording the story behind the heirloom can help preserve its history.
Recording the story behind the heirloom can help preserve its history.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The best way to preserve the history of a family heirloom is with a written or oral history. If the treasure bequeathed to you happens to be your grandfather's World War II bomber jacket, and you're fortunate enough to still have him in your life, sit down with him and ask him to talk about his experiences. Ask him how he got the jacket and what happened to him while he was wearing the jacket. Once you get him going, he'll probably remember other details that are significant to the jacket's history. You can also take pictures and write down the story behind the heirloom. Older family members are valuable resources, so get the information while they're still around.

Using and Displaying Heirlooms

Displaying your favorite heirlooms can inspire conversation. But be careful where you display them.
Displaying your favorite heirlooms can inspire conversation. But be careful where you display them.
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Keeping your heirloom in use or on display will often inspire conversation about the piece, helping you to keep the history alive. I have a piece of my great-grandparents' furniture that my grandparents passed down to me. It's unique and often spawns a "Where did you get that?" from people visiting our home. Then, I get to explain that it's one of only a couple hundred made in Ohio, my great-grandparents bought it in 1918, and it was a memorable fixture in my grandparents' house when I was growing up.

Collections you inherit are great conversation pieces, especially if you have them on display so you can see everything at once. If your heirloom happens to be your family's silver, use it. Silver is sturdy and holds up better with regular polishing and use. Looking at old photos is a great way to preserve special memories, but you need to be careful with them. Exposure to light can quickly fade a photo, so keep it away from sun and turn off lights when you leave the room where it's stored. Better yet, make a copy and frame it, then store the original for preservation.

Repairing, Restoring or Altering Heirlooms

If your prized heirloom isn't in great condition, you may consider trying to repair it. This can be a slippery slope, and depends on several factors.

First of all, is the heirloom itself worth a lot of money? If it is, seek out a pro to do the restoration and repairs. Trying to do it yourself could ruin the piece.

Next, what are you planning to do with the heirloom? Is it something that you want to use, or are you hoping its value will continue to appreciate so you can make some money off of it in the future? You should be cautious about altering an heirloom, but there are some circumstances that warrant a go-ahead. If it's a piece of furniture made of nice wood, but it doesn't quite fit in with your décor, painting it may be valid. It can always be stripped to its original wood at a later date. Likewise, if you're given your grandfather's '57 Chevy, you may be able to live without air conditioning, but AM radio just ain't gonna work. So installing an up-to-date sound system will actually make the car more usable for you. Just keep in mind that if you want to sell it at a later date, it may not be considered as valuable without the original parts.

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Sources:

  • Hodges, Shirley Gage. "Preserving Family Heirlooms." Globalgeneaology.com, January 24, 2007.http://globalgenealogy.com/globalgazette/gazsh/gazsh-0019.htm
  • "Preserve Your Family Treasures." Minnesota Historical Society, 2010.http://www.mnhs.org/people/mngg/stories/
  • "What are my family heirlooms worth, and where do I go to get them appraised?" preservation.gc.ca, 2010.http://www.preservation.gc.ca/info/heirloom_e.asp
  • Walker, Pat. "Out of the Attic! A Guide to Preserving Your Family Heirlooms." Chasinglydia.com, 2010.http://www.chasinglydia.com/content/view/43/57/