Safeguard the Legacy of Family Heirlooms

PitcherBy Mary V. Danielsen of Documented Legacy

Things have legacies too. Don’t presume your extended family will remember all the stories and facts connected to your family heirlooms. Make time to document the individual stories behind your cherished possessions handed down in your family or collected by you.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with your estate is not properly preserving your family heirlooms. These heirlooms are any material items that hold either sentimental, historical or monetary value to you. They may be something that was collected, enjoyed or passed down to you from previous generations. You may have plans to sell or give these items away at some point.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a bookmark or a Tiffany lamp, they are your family heirlooms and they hold meaning to you. Even if you’ve talked about these heirlooms incessantly for years, don’t presume your extended family will remember all the details and facts connected to them.

That was the case with a Virginia family that owned a rare and valuable bronze statue designed by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), which went up for auction earlier this year. According to an article in AntiqueWeek magazine last month, the piece had been in the family for more than 75 years. Family members often thought about asking the grandparents questions about this piece as they grew older, but didn’t. The signature on the statue wasn’t visible. It was only after it had been appraised and evaluated that two sections of the statue were separated to reveal Rodin’s famous signature. Until then no one in the family knew for certain what it was and how the family came into its ownership. They can’t roll the clock back now.

Once storytellers are gone, history is lost forever unless you take steps to preserve it.

This week, make time to begin documenting the individual stories behind the cherished possessions in your family. Family Heirloom Documentation is a form of life story and memoir writing where you record the history and stories behind a single item or collection in your home. It is an opportunity to preserve the legacy of a thing that has a greater story behind it.

Family Heirloom Documentation - Crystal Platter

Click image to download printable PDF

This is a simple project to launch, because you can work on it in short bursts of time. By way of example, here is a story I wrote about a crystal platter my mother gave me. I took Mom’s story and added bits of historical facts about an area. The dish is worth a few dollars, but now it’s a priceless heirloom. No matter what happens to it next, this story of my mother toddling between two grandmothers at a turning point in our country’s history, is the heirloom my children and I will save.

To begin, start by making a list of your family heirlooms. They don’t have to be something as significant as a Rodin, but rather something with a history. Your goal is to share your passion and history for this item with the next generations in your family who may own it. Tell the story.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why are you passionate about this item?
  • Why do you value it
  • Who made it?
  • What are it’s dimensions? Describe it?
  • How old is it?
  • What do you know about it’s history?
  • How did you acquire it? How was it gifted to you?
  • What do you remember about it? If it has been in your possession for a long time, how have you enjoyed it?
  • If you received it from previous generations, how did they acquire it?
  • Did they acquire it during travels? If so, tell the story about their travels.
  • Was this something that was used professionally? If so, write a story associated with your elder’s work.
  • If they bought it, what did they pay for it?
  • How did family elders use or enjoy this item?
  • Was this something that was taken for granted? Was it so visible in your home that you walked by it every day? Or was it tucked away?
  • Was this a hobby? If so, how did it begin and how did it evolve?
  • Where did they have it in their home?
  • Are there any unique stories in your family about this item.
  • Do you have any receipts for its acquisition, care maintenance, restoration?
  • Is this something that should be appraised or insured?
  • Do you have any photos of it from the past. Examples would be photos of your family elders with this item.

Click here to download our Family Heirloom Documentation Tip sheet.

Now grab your camera and Flip-Pal mobile scanner and use both to preserve images and documents associated with each heirloom. Images will add monetary and sentimental value to each story preserved. Scan the item and any documents associated with it. One tool will work better than the other for you. Try them both. How else could you use these tools to record this item?

Now you’ve compiled a legacy. Share it and store a copy with your important papers.

Pitcher TopSometimes I will photograph a piece of jewelry or crystal. I will also use my scanner to capture a stronger or more creative image of the item. For instance, I recently scanned a set of pearls against my daughter’s wedding dress to use for the bridal shower. I will sometimes use the scanner to create pinhole-type photographic images of crystal. By way of example, in the photos posted here I used both my camera and scanner to capture various images of an antique crystal creamer inherited from my mother.

Family Heirloom Documentation - Candy Dish

Click image to download printable PDF


By answering these questions you’ll naturally begin to tell the story of a thing, a family artifact whose legacy is worth preserving. By thinking of them you’ll crack open the attic to your memory and allow stories to flow like chatter at a family reunion. Write everything that comes to mind. The backstory of an heirloom’s existence adds value and depth to your family’s history.Record the details you want to preserve with your heirlooms and then have fun with the project. Here’s a funny story about a crystal candy dish I was always told not to touch as a child.

Down the road, family members may chose to sell or give away this item, but they’ll keep the stories. As things move through estate and yard sales where families dispose of unwanted personal properly often buyers ask, “What can you tell me about this?” The story will add value to the heirloom as it travels forward. Imagine if that Virginia family with the Rodin had a two page story outlining the history of that statue. It would have elevated the already excited frenzy surrounding the statue’s sale.

Tip #1:
The Family Heirloom Documentation also fits in with your estate planning, financial planning (should you decide to buy and sell antiques or collectibles), household documentation and disaster preparedness.

Tip #2:
Do you need advice on storing your family heirlooms. Read “Saving Stuff ” by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar.

This is a perfect project for a car collector.

3 Responses to Safeguard the Legacy of Family Heirlooms

  1. Lorraine Howard July 3, 2014 at 6:04 pm #

    What a wonderful article with excellent tips. I love the prompts.

  2. Lorraine Howard July 3, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    What wonderful advice with important tips. Thank you. Will start mine now instead of just thinking about it!


  1. Keep It Simple | Flip-Pal mobile scanner - April 8, 2016

    […] one night this week continuing your research on family heirlooms. Or write another story. Continue evaluating online photo sharing sites or rehousing old […]

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