Presently some of the world’s finest cultural heritage, residing within the private homes of the world’s most affluent families, is about to make a move. Artworks like Greco-Roman or Egyptian antiquities, Old Masters, early impressionist paintings, Asian works of art, Vellum books, or important musical and literary archives, will greet new owners.
Also on their way are noteworthy original decorative arts and antiques from famous design houses in history, such as Gallet, Chippendale, Wedgewood, Villeroy & Boch, Faberge, Christofle, Hermes, and others, renowned for their innovation, technique, and aesthetics.
In a world of new socio-economic habits, emerging technologies, and new tendencies in the art investment world, one wonders what is the fate of these artworks in the hands of the next generation.
Many of these are considered heirlooms with ‘added value’, as they are carrying not only a family legacy but also important elements of cultural heritage. The question is- Are affluent families having conversations about the destiny of their ‘things of culture’ in an essential way – or is it all about money, stocks, and property?
Four factors that influence the keep-or-not-to-keep dilemma
It should not be taken for granted that the upcoming generations will want to keep these things. There are four determining factors that ultimately influence the next generation’s to-keep-or-not-to-keep dilemma.
1. Missing Mona Lisa’s smile through an overemphasis on practicality.
The inheritance experience is often governed more by practical factors rather than essential ones – the practical ones overshadowing the essential ones. Focus is set on the provenance of artworks, navigating through the burdens of inheritance tax and legal circumstances‚ sorting out the interests of co-inheritors; resolving disputes that frequently arise over individual items; getting new appraisals on present market value, and arranging insurance or considering the condition of artifacts and their preservation, storage, and safety.
Although these are all important, concentrating only on these is like looking at the Mona Lisa backward to see if the frame has woodworm or how long the nail on the wall will be able to hold the portrait up – and missing her smile. The marketplace is an increasingly strong determinant that will dictate the value and how artworks of cultural heritage are transferred from one generation to the next.
2. The artifact’s value is increasingly seen as a commodity and asset through the prism of the global art world.
This will surely distort some aspects of its essential value, which is highly intangible and unmeasurable. How are we to calculate the real value of a Renoir painting? Is it the emotional value of an heirloom of the Renoir family carrying legacy? Is it the price paid by the new owner to exhibit it on his yacht? Is it a good asset to be stored in the vault, laying low for a while until the next auction? How does such a painting communicate its value, immersed in an array of inheritors’ emotions, interests, and publicity, or is it just a cash-cow to be milked?
On the other hand, it is interesting to note that, according to the 2019 Deloitte Art & Finance report the emerging tendency in art investment is in Post-War & Contemporary art rather than Old Masters. This adds yet another dimension to the issue of value. Most of the next generation is now in mid-life and is often seeking experiences reflecting lightness-of-being, rather than the accumulation of more objects and responsibilities.
3. A new type of owner is emerging – a kind that wants experiences, not things.
Artifacts that comfortably existed for generations within accommodating environments, values and lifestyles that sustained them are standing on moving ground. According to a study done by the Inheritance Muse consultancy, in contrast to their parents, inheritors now seek more freedom, simplicity, authenticity, quality of life, good work-life balance, diversity, and self-fulfillment.
Though much of the next generation is well versed in their cultural heritage, this does not necessarily mean they want to keep it or manage it.
Quite often, important collections end up dismembered and sent to the auction houses because the children of the owner simply do not want them. Givers who offer the next generation little knowledge or emotional rapport to their artwork-gifts can expect little enthusiasm from their inheritors to retain them.
4. Many inheritors lack appreciation, knowledge, or emotional connection with the artworks.
They were not given the opportunity to create a direct relationship with the items because the giver did not take the time to mentor their successors into forming these experiences. So the gift becomes a ‘thing inherited’ rather than an experience to be cherished- and consequently, more likely to be sold. All these factors may bring limited perception on the artwork leading its essential devaluation- but most importantly the lack of sustenance of cultural heritage flame within the private sphere.
The value of an heirloom with a story.
If our goal is to create a quality of life, it is worth taking a closer look at these unique family heirlooms. To find out what else is there for us beyond cash – namely to find their intrinsic value.
Heirlooms are unique objects with intrinsic power and the ability to transfer immeasurable value from one generation to another. They are carriers of memory, emotion, identity, culture and can reinforce an individual’s or family’s sense of itself. The key here is the narratives that escort them. An heirloom without a story is like a treasure chest without the key.
This is why retracing or reclaiming a lost or stolen heirloom is so important. A vivid example was the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also known as The Lady in Gold, by Gustav Klimt,) which was stolen by the Nazis in 1938 and later restituted after a complex legal battle. There are experts like Proper Provenance LLC who assist in determining the provenance of an artefact, or Amineddoleh & Associates LLC who assist in the authentication process and serve as legal counsel in making claims for the return of such objects.
Ultimately, culture is the experience of value.
If we come to own an heirloom – say, an Ancient Greek or Mayan vase, a Fayum portrait, a rare African Dogon mask, the first edition of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, or a Vacheron Constantin clock – there opens a unique opportunity for us, beyond their evident sale value. Such heirlooms are also objects of cultural value – their value extending into the broader heritage called the fruits of culture and humanity.
It is a real, tangible link with history. Not all valuable representations of culture’s quintessence are in museums – nor, arguably, should they be. Many are in private homes and in people’s daily lives. This is good because the interaction between subject and object is not purely passive, as in a museum, but something else is taking place – a deeper, more essential interaction that is dynamic and alive. We get to have an insider experience of our history, where the subject is influencing the object and vice versa.
Owning a piece of cultural heritage is a privilege that needs care and responsibility, but can be an amazing journey that enriches both the owner and the object.
What is the unique opportunity to the holder? Namely to co-create with history on an intimate level. We become custodians of a small piece of this vast oeuvre called human heritage. The artifact may be a small coin from Ancient Syracuse given to us by our grandfather, which we carry in our pocket, or a 9th generation favourite Regency chair we like to sit on.
When we keep such heirlooms close to our heart, integrate them into our daily life or repurpose them, we become richer. But we also enrich the objects too with our living energy. We enjoy and share them, holding on to their stories and adding our own. We can create meaning & memory that will give value to our lives and those that come after us.
When we embrace the whole universe of the artifact, reflect on it, warm it with our hands, care for it, protect it and preserve it, we empower ourselves and the objects. The heirloom will then retain these qualities and radiate them outwards again.
The to-keep-or-not-to-keep dilemma is a challenge. It needs a deeper insight into what is being handled, its preciousness and how real value is created – or lost. The aim is to create an authentic relationship between the new generation and the artifacts. This will lead to a dynamic and empowering custodianship of cultural heritage, bringing with it qualities, that give life meaning – and hopefully will keep some things off the market.