by Harry L. Rinker
I received a recent email from JP who lives near State College, Pennsylvania. It read: “I realize going through life that when you inherit things, all the good things already are taken by other relatives. If I want to leave some really nice things for my younger daughters who are in diapers, what are your suggestions for things I could collect they might want to inherit?”
I am ignoring the first sentence. I made a note on my future “Rinker on Collectibles” columns’ list to develop a “How to Get the Better of Your Relatives” column. It’s a subject with which I have a great deal of experience—some good and some bad.
Experience with children and grandchildren has taught Linda and me that attempting to predetermine what they would like to inherit is a lost cause. Linda assembled a large collection of Wendt und Kühn angels and other figurines that she plans to gift to our granddaughter Sofia.
There are two problems. Sofia has never visited us in Kentwood, Michigan. Her memories of her Grandma’s legacy are non-existent. Her only contact with Wendt und Kühn is the annual Christmas tree angel ornament that she receives each year. Linda even bought Sofia an artificial Christmas tree to put in her room to display the ornaments. This past August, Sofia and her family moved to Houston and currently live in a rental apartment. Most of the family’s household possessions are in storage. Sofia’s Christmas tree and her ornaments are in an unmarked box buried somewhere in the storage unit. Her 2018 Christmas angel is still in Kentwood. Linda plans to keep it until Sofia’s parents buy a home and Sophia is reunited with her collection.
The second problem is even larger. Sofia turned 13 in June 2018. Long before becoming a teenager, Sofia developed her own set of likes and dislikes. Her ability to self-determine is only growing stronger. If Sofia willingly inherits her Grandma’s Wendt und Kühn collection, it will be because she loved her Grandma and knew how much it meant to Grandma that she have them. I doubt it will be because Sofia is enamored by Wendt und Kühn pieces.
[Author’s Aside #1: This story is repeated over and over again as the treasures of one generation are kept by the next because a parent loved the object and not because the inheritors have any interest in them. The classic examples are Hummel figurines, collectible edition anything, especially plates, and dinnerware and glassware. Inevitably, the time arises when the inheritors who have displayed or stored these things realize that: 1) they do not particularly like them, 2) never use them, and 3) the next generation of children want nothing to do with them.]
The above story illustrates a simple point. It is impossible to predetermine what your children will like when they are teenagers, young adults or when you die. Most parents spend a lifetime trying to answer that question. One answer that keeps cropping up is everything they did not receive in the first place. It is amazing how many remember what they did not get as opposed to what they did. If Linda’s and my children are typical, the answer is an easy one—our money.
People collect memories. Children are no different. Hence, my first suggestion to JP is to identify things that belong to his wife and him that they would like to pass down to their children. If there are early family heirlooms, add them to the list.
Focus on the practical. Select objects that children are likely to use and whose form and design appear to have the potential to stand the test of time. Use is the key. Modern generations favor things that can be used no matter how old they are and that fit into contemporary decorating and fashion styles.
Keep the list small. New is the order of the day for the current generation. In order for this generation to save or use something old, it has to have a functional or high emotional value. Emotional value is generation driven. Watch the objects to which your children keep returning. If lucky, it will be the selected objects. If not, change the list.
Once the objects have been identified, make a point to create memories. While use memory is the most important, also focus on sharing information and stories about the objects. Animate the objects. Perception and reality are often one and the same.
The best way to reinforce the memories is to encourage the children to repeat them. Do not correct their account unless it contains blatant falsehoods. Memories are personal. They are not perceived the same way by different individuals. Each person brings his own perspective to memories.
Instead of focusing on what to collect, encourage children to reuse older things and foster the act of collecting. When Linda and I visited with Sofia and her brother Marcelo during our trips to their Reading, Pennsylvania, home, I took Sofia and Marcelo to garage sales whenever the opportunity rose. I gave them each five dollars and told them to buy what they like. I taught them how to bargain, buy only things they would use or display, and to stretch their money as far as possible. The ultimate goal was a simple one—see value in older things. No emphasis was put on saving or collecting things. I reserved this for later.
[Author’s Aside #2: When Sofia and Marcelo were born, I initially followed advice I had given earlier—identify a child’s favorite toys, buy a second example, and gift he/she their childhood mint-in-the-box when he/she turned 30. My good intent lasted less than two years. First, I noticed how fast their “favorite” toy changed. Their toy attention span was measured in days or weeks and not months or years as in my generation. Second, I recalled my argument that childhood memories start at age six or seven. Infant/pre-school toys are cast aside and forgotten once that age is reached.]
Since collecting is about memories, encourage your children to save their memories. Do not save them for them. Recently, Linda discovered a scrapbook that her mother kept that included material from elementary school through high school. She had no interest in her kindergarten and elementary school artwork and only modest interest in the junior high material. She did smile when reviewing her senior high material. When I encouraged her to save the album, she shrugged and said, “Why? It only has meaning to me.” I saved it hoping that when the day comes when Linda regrets her decision, I can surprise her.
Encourage children to buy and save things that evoke memories. Ask if they want to enhance those memories by acquiring additional items. Although there are individuals who have a natural instinct to collect, most collectors began as savers and evolve into collectors.
When children start collecting, be supportive. Encourage them to collect. Resist the urge to collect for them. Help by taking them to places where they can find the objects to add to their collection and assist them financially, at least at the beginning.
I have the figural salt and pepper collection that belonged to my second wife, Connie. As a teenager, she acquired a few sets of figural salt and peppers shakers that she liked. Before she knew what was happening, her parents, aunts, uncles, relatives, and friends gifted her dozens of additional figural salt and peppershakers. Too polite to say no, she kept the collection on display until her first marriage at which time she boxed it up and moved it with her. I found and opened the box one day by mistake. She took one look, told me she did not want them and to get rid of them. I kept them with the firm knowledge; Connie would never change her mind. Dedicated accumulators never turn down anything that is free.
Avoid being judgmental about what your children collect. If you disagree, keep your opinions to yourself. The one exception is if the child’s motivation for collecting (not using or playing with) is because it will be worth more in the future. Antiques and collectibles are extremely risky monetary investments. Collecting should be about the joys and fun of collecting. Long-term financial gain is an enemy of collecting, not a friend. More go down than up in value over the long-term.
Finally, when the children leave home, do not pressure them with a “if you do not take it with you, I am going to throw it out” approach. Rather, offer to store things they might (no guarantee) want until they have room for them. It is okay to gently remind them of your generosity from time to time.
What advice would you give JP? Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will archive them for possible use in a future column.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.
You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8 and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com. Copyright © Harry L. Rinker, LLC 2018