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Is it Family History or Clutter? 3 Tips

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What's the difference between clutter and family history?

Clutter or Family History?

Ellen Lupton, the curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the director of the master’s program in graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art recently posted a well written and humorous article in the opinion section of the NY Times about the angst of having inherited stuff from the past. It appears that her need to eliminate clutter trumps her archival gene… something I didn’t expect from a curator.

Here’s the article:

Of course, you know that there are always opposites in life, even extremes: throw the baby out with the bathwater is at the opposite end of the spectrum as not being able to throw anything away for fear. Some inner emotional balance is required in this discussion that, surprisingly, has a lot at stake.

Family history, handed down from generation to generation is documented in the items we have passed down: certificates, scrapbooks, ancestral photos, a family bible. These kinds of treasures are somewhat different than your mother’s wedding dress, your grandma’s espresso cups, your great uncle’s underwear… depending on your attachment to your past. But is it only your past? Consider the fact that you are the curator for the future. And like a curator you, are going to pick and choose, evaluate, interpret and establish the family value of items you received. These items are not yours. A certain number of important items will only be passing through you, like a time machine, to the future. You can’t buy an heirloom at Pottery Barn or Ikea. It comes… or goes… via gift, bequest or a heated sibling brawl.

Humans are hardwired with two needs: one, to gather things that document our lives and are important to us and the other, to protect what we gather. But some people are not born with the archival gene. I liked the way the author expressed this thought, “Antique stores are filled with failed heirlooms — that faded quilt or knotty pine commode that was abandoned by its owners, or worse, its owners’ children. Nicole Holofcener’s film Please Give revolves around an antique dealer (played by Catherine Keener) who acquires the possessions of recently deceased apartment dwellers and sells them for a profit in her hip urban furniture shop. While she frets about the morality of the postmortem markup, her pragmatic husband (Oliver Platt) sees what they’re doing as a service for middle-aged offspring who want to cut loose from old baggage (and some very ugly vases).”

Toss it... or treasure it?

Bought at a garage sale or brought from the home land?

Broken, dirty or perfect… is it worth keeping?

I know, very well, a very successful estate contents buyer in West Los Angeles that appraises and buys entire contents of home, usually post mortem. He is called in by an attorney or siblings to liquidate all the possessions in one fell swoop; done and gone in a blink of an eye. No hassles, no tears, cash on the barrelhead. He does several of these deals a week, carting out of the house even the “great uncle’s underwear” in addition to cutlery, furnishings, drapes, art… he leaves the place clean. How does he make his money (he drives a $350K Bentley)? A recent set of dishes he showed me tells the story: He bought the entire contents of the Beverly Hills home for $25,000. Just the set of china he was showing me was valued at $160,000. Imagine the rest of the “stuff.” He also takes advantage, often, of situations like the following story.

I got a call one day from a lady who had bought a poster at a yard sale from a family getting rid of the worst of grandma’s things. Upon arriving home with her new acquisitions, the neighbor friend told her, “Helen, this looks like a painting to me! No, Betty, that’s a poster… just look at the frame and glass! I just bought it in a garage sale! Really, Helen, I think it’s a painting. You should have it looked at.” So, the new owner called me.

A quick look under the stereobinocular microscope confirmed it was an original Norman Rockwell painting that she sold for $215,000 the week after I got through cleaning it for her.

Perhaps a good look is called for before you throw the baby out with the bathwater? Here are 3 tips of coaching for anyone sifting through piles of heirlooms, memorabilia, family history:

1. Distinguish between simply decorative and meaningful. Consult with others in the family about needs to get a more complete perspective.

2. Make copies of important, emotional, valuable, historical items for safe keeping and to spread the family history around to more than one person in the family.

3. Consult with an appraiser. Appraisers are often specialized in the types of objects they have knowledge about. Get a fine art appraiser for paintings… not an estate, garage sale appraiser.

You only get one shot at this curator gig. Once you’ve thrown it out, let the bugs have it, leave it on the driveway in a cardboard box when it rains… then a piece of your family history is gone… and perhaps, much more than that.

Full of certificates, photos of grandparents now gone, little kids now grown

Left out, in a cardboard box on the driveway

What can you do to take care of your stuff? See “Products” page

Appraisal questions?

For an entertaining 7 min. video story of an appraisal adventure go to

6 Responses to "Is it Family History or Clutter? 3 Tips"
  1. Adele Francis says:

    Thanks for this article. You know, it common sense but the message still needs to get out and you lay it out there in such an understandable way. Other museum experts, like this curator, are so caught up in themselves and their writing that usually you can’t really put into practice what they write about.

    This is such an interesting website and I appreciate also the additional info on Facebook (under the same name as this site, whoever is reading this…) What a great resource! Thanks.

  2. Madeleine Strickland says:

    I agree with Adele. Great site and thanks. A lot of useful information here. I’ve downloaded the free stuff from the Products page and seen all your Facebook pages. You are a busy group of people! I’m sending it to some friends in my club (you said it was OK in another post)! I really appreciate your efforts!

  3. Charlotte Sherman, Director says:

    Dear Scott,

    I welcome your emails (preservation tips). I do recommend your conservation service to clients frequently. You are the best.

    Heritage Gallery
    1300 Chautauqua Blvd.
    Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
    (310) 230-4340

  4. Peggy Remy says:

    This was my first time that I have visited your blog… and it is awesome. This clutter article is great and gave me some good amo as I discuss clearing things out of my mother’s house with my sisters.

  5. Donna Gatlin says:

    Excellent blog! I genuinely love what you write about as well as how well its written. I am wondering how I may be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which should do the trick! Have a nice day!

  6. Victor Ortiz says:

    Family History or Clutter? Great subject and thanks for the tips. Thanks a ton!

Comments are closed.