As social networking becomes increasingly popular in the genealogy community, there has been an upswing in the number of posts I see on Facebook and Twitter about other people’s heirlooms “rescued” from uncertain fates. Browsing thrift stores, garage sales and Ebay for unwanted photos, marriage certificates, military memorabilia, and other treasures has become almost a hobby in it’s own right. Unfortunately, it is also an expensive pastime, with a low chance of a happy reunion between precious souvenirs and eager descendants.
While I don’t often rescue heirlooms myself, I have done so a few times in the past. I thought I would share with you my “golden rules” for rescuing heirlooms that will reduce the chance your hard-earned dollars are wasted on an item that never finds a home.
- Only buy things that are reasonably priced. Remember that you want to keep your stake in this process low. Antique dealers often charge high prices for photos and albums, they are not likely to haggle with you just because you are trying to return it to the family. If I were going to purchase an item, I’d probably try to keep the price under $5 for a single photo and under $20 for any one item or album. Set your own limit based on your budget before you leave the house to go antiquing and stick to it. Sometimes when an item is out of my budget I will photograph it in the shop and post the photo on Ancestry so that researchers can benefit from it, but I am not putting money into it.
- Only buy things that are identifiable. Remember that in order to locate descendants you need to have a starting place. Antiques can travel a long way from home before they end up in a shop you are visiting. No matter how beautiful a photo is, you need at least a name, probably a place (check the photographer’s mark), and a date would be very helpful. The chance of identifying a photo with no name is very low and I personally don’t think it is worth the investment when there are so many other photos out there that have a better chance of being identified.
- Avoid items that are recent enough that the living descendant who discarded it knew the subject. Focus on items that are old enough that there will potentially be many branches of descendants to seek out. It doesn’t do much good to pick up a wedding photo from the 1980s when the people in the photo, or their children, probably intentionally discarded it in the first place. Divorces happen, family rifts happen, children might not care about the family heirlooms. You probably can’t change that by handing them back the things they took to Goodwill last week. I think about the fact that my grandparents were born in the 1930s and I knew them in my lifetime. I use that as my guideline for what to buy and not buy at antique stores, aiming for things from the 1910s and earlier.
By following these three rules I set myself up for success. This doesn’t guarantee I’ll find a home for each item I purchase, but it improves my chances of reuniting memories with those who are interested.