By Marni Jameson
When a museum director called me a few months ago to ask if I would give the keynote talk at a community event she was planning, I thought, why me?
“You want me to talk about downsizing?” I asked, making sure the caller, Emily Blaugrund Fox
executive director of Albuquerque Museum Foundation, had the right person.
“Yes, clearing out the family home,” she verified.
That’s my beat all right, but I was puzzled. I’m thinking downsizing as in clearing out all the stuff that accumulates in a family home over decades — books you’ll never read again or at all, old televisions with lost remotes, faded frayed towels, so-so artwork, passé clothes, baby toys that belong to the kid who now drives, assorted vases so plentiful you could open a flower shop, toothless rakes — the stuff of life we’re so good at acquiring and not so good at letting go of.
“If they have items of value, we’d like them to think of the museum when they do their estate planning,” Fox said.
“Oh, right! Stuff of value.” I wasn’t making the connection because we don’t have stuff of value in my family. Like most households, we just have stuff of no value. I do, however, have family members who think some of their stuff has value but wouldn’t fetch two fly wings at a flea market. I’ll let you be the one to tell them that.
“If they have valuable pieces of art, or an historic artifact from the region that they think would be a fit for our mission, we’d like them to call us,” she said.
“Do people often think they have something precious that isn’t?” I asked, but I’m thinking, like everyone.
“Our curators will be honest,” she said. “While, we don’t want grandma’s cross-stitched hankies, if you have an old piece of Indian pottery from the area, we might take a look.”
All this got me thinking, which kind of sounds like a ten-car pile-up, what could I tell these museum types about how to bequeath beloved belongings.
For more perspective, I called Graydon Sikes, director of artwork for Everything But The House, (www.ebth.com). An online estate sale marketplace, EBTH helps folks downsize, or sell everything in a house from the mop and bucket to the collector car.
“While most households don’t have anything of significant value, when we review an estate, we sometimes find an object that does. Very rarely, we find something that is museum worthy,” said Sikes.
When they do, they can refer to an arsenal of specialists who have expertise in such areas as coins, cars, antiques, jewelry, sports memorabilia, and more. Then they use their network to market to collectors worldwide.
“What a relief to the kids!” I said, remembering how when clearing out my parents’ home I worried that I would sell a Winslow Homer for five dollars.
“The number one wish people downsizing have is that they want the items they love to go to those who will appreciate them,” said Sikes, echoing what I’ve heard my readers tell me for years.
“And it’s never their kids,” I said.
“When family members don’t share the same appreciation, we find people who do,” he said.
For downsizers or estate planners who want their valuables to fall into the right hands, and their assets support a good cause, Sikes and Fox offer these do’s and don’ts:
- Do nothing. Though inertia is the common default when faced with a houseful of stuff, not planning for the disposition of your treasured belongings assures that someone who probably cares less than you do will.
- Put it in storage. Pleeeeeeeze do not pay to store your stuff. If you can’t comfortably live in your home with what you have, sell or donate what you don’t have room for.
- Leave it to the museum without asking. When drawing up their will, some people stipulate that they want all their artwork and antiques to go to the museum, without ever asking the museum, Sikes said. (People do that?) They think they’re being charitable, but they put a terrible burden on the museum. The museum inherits all this stuff it didn’t want. Permanent collections are a liability. They cost money to insure, store, and maintain.
- Ask your kids or other loved ones if they want anything. If they say they don’t, believe them.
- Tell your story. If an item has a great story, write it down and be sure the documentation conveys with the piece. That will add not only to its value, but also to the new owner’s appreciation.
- Get an appraisal. If you believe you have something of value, get it appraised by a specialist in that genre. This will help you prove authenticity and value if you sell it. If you donate the item, an appraisal will help you support the tax write off.
- Donate without strings. Museums used to get into a bind by promising donors they would always keep a piece on display, or that they would never break up a collection even if they only wanted one piece. They got stuck holding these items into perpetuity. Today most museums agree to “unencumbered” donations. They make no promise that an item will be on display. They also are not bound to keep it.
- Find a good home. If the museum declines your donation, your pieces can still benefit the museum if you sell them and donate the proceeds. Go through an auction house or an online auction. Though you’ll pay a commission, you have a good shot of finding a buyer who will cherish the item.
- Give creative gifts. While institutions don’t want unsolicited items, some museums, universities, and even churches, welcome pre-approved gifts of art or antiques. The institution can sell these items for cash. At the end of the day, kids and museums really want the same thing. Most would rather have the cash than the stuff.
If you’re interested in joining me at the Albuquerque Museum this Sunday, April 29, get your tickets here: https://albuquerquemuseum.org/calendar-event/downsizing-the-family-home/
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of three home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.