She Inherited a Curious Collection From a Beloved Aunt. Now What?
A collection of one-of-a-kind images of JFK. A trove of historic cowgirl memorabilia. These heirs struggled with how to handle unusual inheritances. Find out what professional appraisers and curators recommend when a loved one passes on quirky valuables
Kelly P.’s* jaw dropped when her mother-in-law opened the old-fashioned photo album she had just pulled out of her linen closet.
“Her older sister Lucretia had recently passed away,” Kelly remembers. The album held dozens of professionally developed 8-by-10 large-format camera photographs featuring some very famous faces.
“I’m like, ‘Mom, this is JFK’s funeral!’” she recalls.
"Mom, this is JFK's funeral!"
It was a collection of never-before-seen images of the funeral ceremonies for the tragically slain 35th president, snapped from intimate angles in the Capitol Rotunda, where his body lay in state in November 1963, and at his graveside in Arlington National Cemetery.
“She said, ‘I know, Aunt Cree’s best friend was a photographer, she covered the whole funeral procession.’ I had never seen anything like them before,” Kelly says.
Kelly’s husband is the youngest of five, and the siblings all agreed their late aunt’s photo album was a potentially significant treasure. But they had no idea how to find out for sure, or what to do with it once they knew.
With the family’s permission, Kelly took the album home to Dallas, Texas. There, a curator at the Sixth Floor Museum, which chronicles the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath, confirmed that the images were unique close-up views of the final presidential rites.
“He said they would be thrilled for us to donate them, but some of my husband’s siblings said we should try to sell,” Kelly says. “Then, we just came to a standstill.”
That was in 2001.
1. Do the research — then consider an appraisal
In the aftermath of a loss, dealing with the possessions a loved one left behind can be bewildering. “The inclination is to just freeze in a panic of uncertainty,” says Jennifer Carman, an accredited senior appraiser in Little Rock, Arkansas. The popular television shows about antique auctions and appraisals can contribute to that sense of uncertainty. “There’s this fear that they might become the fool who sells a priceless treasure at a yard sale.”
“But if people blunder through the process, they can end up losing a lot of money,” warns historian and museum curator Mary Miley Theobald. Her book Stuff After Death was inspired by her rescue of a valuable piece of tarnished sterling silver from the throwaway pile at her late mother-in-law’s home.
“If people blunder through the process, they can end up losing a lot of money.”
Fear makes some heirs reluctant to examine a cherished item’s history. Linda Fuentes of Commack, New York, feels a sentimental attachment to two pieces of porcelain that belonged to her grandmother. “I almost don’t want to know if it’s valuable because I might be tempted to sell,” Fuentes admits.
Fuentes kept a gilt china bowl and hand-painted Limoges plate hidden away for years, worried her small children might break them. “I never did any research, but I’m starting to wonder if I should,” she says.
Experts agree that research is key. Gather information from the family’s files or records as a first step, Carman says. “A little snooping can reveal bills of sale or old appraisals or documentation that will lend clues to an object’s provenance (history of ownership) or identification.”
Fuentes has no paperwork on her pieces. According to family lore, they once belonged to her grandmother’s godmother, whose name no one remembers. “We think they must be 150 years old,” Fuentes says.
In that situation, the objects themselves may tell a story. “A plate marked ‘Limoges’ on the back with a hand-painted design on the front — usually floral or botanical — might be the work of the relative herself,” Theobald explains. “Nicely brought up ladies were raised to have these talents at the turn of the last century."
To confirm preliminary research, Theobald recommends taking older items to a reputable antique dealer or a museum curator. “Many are happy to give you an off-the-cuff idea of what an item is, but not a formal valuation.” Live auction websites that specialize in art, antiques and collectibles may also give you a rough idea of an heirloom’s value, once you know what it is.