Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2004

Family Stories

“It belonged to my grandmother.  She was in her nineties when she died in the 1970s.  It has to be at least one hundred years old.”

“It came over on the boat when my grandparents immigrated to America.”

Appraising and family stories go hand in hand.  Before I begin any verbal appraisal clinic, I tell my audience that an appraiser, in this case me, needs access to all the information available in order to make his appraisal as accurate as possible—the less he has to guess or assume, the better.  I expect the person seeking the appraisal to honestly answer questions that include: how did you acquire the object; when did you acquire it; if you bought it, what did you pay for it?

The vast majority of objects I appraise at a verbal appraisal clinic are family pieces, i.e., they have been handed down from one generation to the next.  As a result, I hear plenty of family stories.  I would like to say that I believe all of them.  The tragedy is that I question far more than I believe.

Family stories are wonderful, but they often are distorted.  They contain kernels of truth, but the overall story is flawed.  Based upon my observations, the more distance between generations the more believable the flawed stories become.  For this reason, I am known to some as “The Great Debunker.”

I cannot leave a flawed family story alone.  I prefer truth over myth.  It is my duty to correct the inconsistency.  Those on the receiving end are not always grateful.  In fact, some are down right resentful.

I remember playing “Pass It Down The Alley” as a kid.  You may know the game by another name—Chinese Whispers or Whisper Down The Alley.  The game involves two or more teams.  Each team is arranged in a row.  A message is given that is to be whispered or passed down the line.  The goal is to accurately send the message down the line as quickly as possible.  If you have ever played the game, you know the end result.  The message always comes out garbled, sometimes rather humorously, at the other end.

Family stories are oral history.  Rarely are they written down.  When they are, the writer usually is several generations removed from the initial storyteller.  Unlike the game Pass It Down The Alley where a phrase or story is transferred in a matter of minutes, family stories are transferred intermittently over decades and often centuries.  Little wonder they are not as accurate as they first seem.

Family stories often contain faulty logic.  For example, great grandmother immigrated to America.  This vase belonged to great-grandmother.  Therefore, great grandmother brought it over to America with her.  Forget the fact that great-grandmother came from Germany and the vase is marked “Made in Japan.”

I am continually surprised at how little people know about their ancestors.  When I am presented with an object that “came over on the boat,” I ask the current owner to provide me with the name of the person to whom the object belonged and the date he or she immigrated to America.  I can understand the person not knowing the exact date of immigration.  I expect a ballpark figure.  However, most cannot tell me the exact name of the person.

Before you say hogwash, take a moment and do a quick genealogical chart that shows your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents by name.  Deduct points if you do not know the maiden names of your grandmothers and great-grandmothers.  How did you do?  Hopefully, you got the names of your parents correct.

When someone says “this belonged to my grandmother,” my immediate reaction is to ask, “when did your grandmother die?”  I am far more interested in when grandma died than when she was born.  When she died is the last possible date that she could have purchased something.

It is a myth that grandmothers and mothers received everything they ever owned on the day when they were married.  Years ago, yearly wedding anniversaries, especially those at five, ten, twenty-five, forty, and fifty years, were the occasion for a major exchange of gifts between husbands and wives.  Landmark, i.e., decade, births also were celebrated.  As a result, grandmother received a great many presents during her lifetime.

Again, most individuals I query cannot tell me the dates of their parents’ or grandparents’ birth, marriages, and deaths, if applicable.  All these are key pieces of information to an appraiser when attempting to authenticate and value an object.  How well would you do if I asked you these questions?

Allow me to share a few of my favorite family stories.  I was asked to appraise a Philadelphia mahogany drop leaf table that was accompanied by a story noting that an ancestor bought the table in the 1780s at a Philadelphia estate auction.  The story included a further enhancement that the auction actually contained three drop leaf tables, a matched pair and a single.  Thomas Jefferson supposedly purchased the matched pair, and the ancestor of the current owner brought the other.  The family provided me with a family tree.  The dates of the initial owner made a 1780 purchase quite possible.  I spent several weeks researching and authenticating the table.  It was indeed a Philadelphia drop leaf table made between 1750 and 1770.  I contacted Monticello to see if the site contained a matched pair of Philadelphia drop leaf tables.  It did not.  I also checked several years of Philadelphia estate inventories in hopes of finding an auction at which three drop leaf tables were offered for sale.  Again, I was not able to pinpoint a specific auction.  On a probability scale of one to ten, I rated the family story an eight and one-half.

During the taping of the third season of “Collector Inspector,” I encountered a signed Beatles album cover.  It was in rough shape.  I asked the owner how she acquired it.  She informed me that her father was a chauffeur in Las Vegas when the Beatles appeared there.  Another chauffeur, his friend, was assigned to drive the Beatles.  This friend had the Beatles sign several albums which he gave away as presents.  The owner was quite young at the time and was only interested in the music.  She played the record and kept the album in her record stack.  As a result, the cover became scuffed.  It was not until more than thirty years later when her daughter was her age that she remembered the signed cover and was fortunate enough to find that she still had it.  I rate this family store a nine and one-half.

I have seen my share of signed Babe Ruth baseballs over the years.  One individual came to me with a story that grandpa was sitting in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium when the Babe hit one of his home runs.  Grandpa caught the ball and took it to the clubhouse to have it signed.  He told the doorkeeper how he acquired the ball.  The doorkeeper took it inside and returned a few minutes later with it signed by the Babe.  I gave this story a one and one-half rating when I first heard it.  Alas, it was and remains a common practice for doorkeepers, batboys, and publicity agents to sign balls for players.  A comparison of authentic Ruth signatures quickly showed that the Babe did not sign the ball.

I saw another Babe Ruth signed ball during my “Collector Inspector” taping.  This owner’s story said that when her uncle was a young boy, he lived near the Babe.  He took ill.  Family friends who knew the Babe suggested a visit by the Yankee slugger might cheer up the boy.  Babe visited and signed the ball.  The ball was accompanied by a letter and picture of the young boy.  Unfortunately, it was not a picture of the young boy and Babe standing side by side.  I rate this family story at seven and one-half.  I liked the story and documentation.  I did not have my reference books to do a signature comparison.

Appraisers, collectors, and dealers love to tell war stories, i.e., stories about their experiences in the field.  Recounting some of the more unusual family stories they encounter is generally part of any conversation.

Family stories are important.  They deserve to be preserved.

Start by writing them down.  Then do your homework.  Put the story to the test.  Do genealogical research about the original owner and the generations through which the object passed.  Research the object itself and make certain it dates from the time period assigned to it by the family story.

Do not be discouraged if the facts do not fully support the story.  The good news is that you own the object and it came down through the family.  When you pass it to the next generation, your written documentation will keep the story straight.

This is something to shout about, not whisper.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet.  Check out www.harryrinker.com.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.

SELL, KEEP OR TOSS?  HOW TO DOWNSIZE A HOME, SETTLE AN ESTATE, AND APPRAISE PERSONAL PROPERTY (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group, $16.95), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via www.harryrinker.com.

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