Heirlooms – Old Habits Die Hard


Few weeks earlier I came across a small book about the traditional qualities of gem stones corresponding to each month of the year. Garnet, the birthday stone attributed to January, was naturally the first in the order of analysis. Having been born in the first month of the year, I was indeed curious to refresh my info about Garnet and its hypothetical force. When the book’s evaluation touched upon the Amethyst of February and its associated Sincerity, it made me recall an incident I heard about a woman’s beautiful Amethyst flower brooch, a family heirloom from her mother, which she had lost just before she bid adios for good to Middle East in the late 1990s.

Time leads us with many memories and family heirlooms have co-existed with durable memories – making some of the family’s best moments to stay with us. From Kings and Queens to the Shah of Iran to Philip Niarchos to our next-door neighbours, old, rare, treasured possession from a great ancestor has been part of many of us.


003Not everyone can have a Rotschilds collection, of course. The only disparity exists in the varied types of the possessions – which may bore the shape of a grandiose mansion; a lake house; delicately carved antique furniture of great and small; paintings; exquisite silver, gold jewellery; beautiful silverware; fine old pottery and porcelain, glasswares; metalwares; antique costumes and accessories; mother’s wedding dress; grandmother’s engagement ring; an enchanting tablecloth of genuine Nottingham Lace; a hand-made Persian rug; a Japanese Kaga-ware vase; a rare manuscript or book; clocks, gold/diamond studded watches and precision instruments; a Cartier set of gold lighters, gold cigarette case; a knitted lace shawl, frock or bedspread; a grand piano; stamps, banknotes, coins and medals; a Swan Vestas matchbox; crested cuff-links, bowler hats; a water Buffalo horn walking stick from the time of the Raj; collection of ties and tie-pins; dolls and dolls’ houses; a Kathakali mask, a 20th century enamelled advertising sign,…. – the list is unlimited.

Part of a family’s heritage and traditions, family heirlooms have been, in most cases, passed on by succeeding generations duly tagged with relevant stories vis.a.viz., who made, purchased, owned or used them. However, some of such original items, including those considered out-dated or unfashionable or treated with utter disinterest, could lay discarded or banished in the attic or end up with collectors through antique dealers, car boot sales, fairs, markets, roadshows, auctions and also through such dubious trade dealers where remarkable range of fake objet d’arts were also manufactured with “period look” to sell off as antiques – taking care they would not be exposed through anachronisms of stylistic detail and construction.

Whether created, or bought, or inherited or found, almost all collections start with one or very few items. The numerous art galleries, museums, curio shops and other trade outlets mushrooming all around the world owe their larger slice of trade revenue to the increasing number of connoisseurs of antique and valuable rarities that diversify into categories of utility, adornment, and decoration.

For their assistance, numerous price guides and specialised books are now available on every subject of antique collecting to distinguish “pottery from porcelain from bone china from stone china.”


From personal experience, I know the surge of euphoria a true admirer gets every time he/she pass by or examine the favourite antique and unique objects in his/her possession. Having spent enormous amount of time trawling antique shops and markets in many countries, we have experienced the pain of lost opportunities to acquire exquisite objects due to restriction on weight during travel or due to other impediments. But the feeling is far worse when you lose a cherished personal possession. The topic brought to mind an amusing short story which I had read a long time ago.


Right, I will get to the point. Of the few letters which had arrived for young Ann and her husband one fine morning in the 1940s, two were of importance. The first was from Ann’s sister-in-law – inviting them to the upcoming christening ceremony of her daughter on the following day. The other letter, from her husband’s Aunt, brought news of her arrival for dinner that day. Another reason for the visit was to collect Ann’s husband’s great-grandfather’s christening mug, a sort of heirloom, which was in Ann’s possession. That silver mug will be used for the new-born baby to cut her first tooth as had all her ancestors cut theirs.

The information threw Ann into a panic. Where had she put it? The psychological adage is that, if you don’t encode, you can’t retrieve. She remembered having placed it on the top shelf in the pantry with all the other odds and ends. As her mind raced like a sprinting hamster in an exercise wheel, her body wasn’t far behind. An extensive ransack of the house after her husband had left revealed that the mug was nowhere to be seen. She burst into tears at the vague realisation that, in a clumsy careless moment, she had accidently thrown the mug down the incinerator chute together with a whole big basket full of discarded items following the comprehensive tidying-up of a couple of weeks ago.


When Ann’s young neighbour learned about her anguish over the burnt mug, she simply laughed it off and suggested that Ann go to one of those many silversmiths/antique shops in London and get an old mug. She is sure to find a suitable one there. Everyone turns a christening mug into cash sooner or later. They would get the inscription on it, if any, altered.

Ann was startled. How she can pitch such an idea! However, with a little prodding from her neighbour her mind was made up. After all, no point crying over the onion. It’s gone. With the advice rattling around her head, she quickly located the right mug at a silversmith in London, altered the inscription on it and was back home with the “heirloom” in time for dinner with her husband and his Aunt.

Upon arrival, the Aunt silently appreciated the inscribed silver mug. She wouldn’t have missed the heirloom since it was strategically placed by Ann on the dining table in front of Aunt’s place for maximum focal point.


In due, the husband had rushed in. He was apologetic for being late. Ann’s mind signalled an internal red alert when, quite suddenly, he presented a silver mug to them. She sat perplexed when her husband explained that he had taken the mug in the morning to have it cleaned and polished. He beamed as if he was one of life’s doers. The next moment, his high-founded confidence faltered as his eyes fell on the shiny mug on the table.

All the while, the Aunt sat there with a serene exterior. Presently, she reached into her bag and placed a third mug on the table – positioning it in a straight row with the other two mugs. For a millionth of a second neither of the couple moved, frozen in time and space. Then, their Aunt related the snapshot of the story about how she had luckily chanced upon the original mug last week at an antique shop where Ann’s husband had sold it due to shortage of cash.

I wonder, how many nature lies in human nature. Jo

The concluding instalment “Heirlooms – On Memory Trail” of this two-part serial will follow soon.


(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

8 thoughts on “Heirlooms – Old Habits Die Hard

  1. Oh, what a delightful narrative. This post is indeed timely. I have been going through my dad’s photos that date back to the 1930’s – 1940’s. What I have learned from traveling back is that time is the greatest treasure. We simply do not have time for anger, anxiety etc, even though humanity is susceptible to these emotions. We need to chose grace, hope, joy. Another great post!!

  2. A delightful post, Jo, wonderfully recorded. I’m looking forward to the next installment and am reminded of the saying ~ What a tangled web we weave, etc… 🙂
    I adore the images, Jo; the metal roosters are especially wonderful. 🙂

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