Family heirlooms: Parents’ collections not always seen as treasure to their kids

Dr. Ralph Merkel looks through some of the ashtrays he has collected since the 1940s, and which his two children aren't interested in inheriting. (Photo by Lisa M. Esquivel Long of News-Sentinel.com)
A Queen Mary ashtray is part of Dr. Ralph Merkel's collection. (Photo by Lisa M. Esquivel Long of News-Sentinel.com)
Dr. Ralph Merkel shows an ashtray he got in Munich in 1973. (Photo by Lisa M. Esquivel Long of News-Sentinel.com)
Dr. Ralph Merkel has about 360 Hummel porcelain figures he has collected. (Photo by Lisa M. Esquivel Long of News-Sentinel.com)
Dr. Ralph Merkel got this large Apple Tree Girl Hummel that was sold to dealers. (Photo by Lisa M. Esquivel Long of News-Sentinel.com)
Dr. Ralph Merkel's wife, Maxi, holds a small Apple Tree Boy Hummel figure next to a large one that's in his collection of 360 figures. (Photo by Lisa M. Esquivel Long of News-Sentinel.com)

With the holiday season prompting a lot of family get-togethers, now would be the perfect time to discuss who’s going to inherit what.

Rikki Goldstein was in a quandary last year. After 70 years in the same eight-room, southside Fort Wayne home, she and her husband, Leonard, would be moving to a two-bedroom apartment in Carmel to live close to one of their daughters.

It meant downsizing was necessary.

“I had all these linens I didn’t think anyone would want,” she said.

No one holds dinner parties, so the china and silverplate just wouldn’t be practical for their children. “Stewing” over what to do, she inquired about holding an estate sale.

That’s when their four children said, “Oh, no, we don’t want that stuff to leave the family.”

“Both my daughters came in every week for a month and helped me weed through all this,” she said.

They created a list of the “good stuff” that each of the four siblings could look over and decide what to take.


When Rikki and Leonard Goldstein married in 1945, she did what most brides-to-be did and registered for gifts.

“At that time, everybody in the upper middle class hoped to have china, crystal and linen,” she said. “… I went to a china shop and picked out a pattern and a jewelry store for silver.”

It was just after World War II, so things were just coming back on the consumer market. A relative in her hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, who owned a jewelry store, ordered his allotment of silverware in her chosen pattern.

She got her service for 12, along with a 4-yard linen tablecloth and napkins for all the dinner parties she expected to have in the future. At the time, Leonard made $75 a week, and they dined on a card table.

Later with her two daughters and two sons, she’d host the family’s High Holy Days or Passover seder and out would come the china and silver.

“That’s when I used it, and they had memories of that,” she said.


Except for perhaps holidays, many people aren’t interested in dining room sets, said Amy J. Beatty, the owner of Amy J. Beatty Valuations, where she handles estate sales and appraisals.

Most of Beatty’s clients are 55-75 and are either downsizing or dealing with aging parents.

“We all have our own homes, tchotchkes and furniture,” Beatty said of adult children.

Everyone is different, but in general, clients want to keep financially stable items, such as family jewelry and coin and gun collections.

Then there are the items “for which there’s a memory, a happy time, a happy event.”

Beatty says she can walk into a home and tell when something brings a client the most joy.

“You stop and the face lights up.”

Conversely, some deal with the problem of deciding whether to take something that a parent wanted them to have but they themselves don’t want.

“If it’s burdensome, it won’t be a joy to have,” she said.

If you never served your family on the good china, they’re not going to want to inherit it.

“You’re imparting the message that these things are too good for your family. It didn’t create a memory.”


When Mary McArdle’s widowed mother, Agnes, died two years ago, she and her sister and two brothers picked out the items they wanted.

They kept the family jewelry and the china that had been Agnes’, Agnes’ mother’s and Agnes’ unmarried sister who had died.

Even though Mary already had a china cabinet, she took the one from her mother’s house because it had been her grandmother’s, much to her husband’s surprise. However, she used it in a different way by showcasing art the couple has in it.

While she kept the silver flatware, she left behind the coffee service.

“I’m not going to spend my life polishing silver,” said the Fort Wayne Community Schools assistant principal.

She also took a Waterford crystal piece because it had special meaning.

During a family trip to Ireland, she helped her father, Jim, pick out the piece he bought for her mother.

Her brothers took the Notre Dame items, a map of Ireland with the family crest, Buick items related to their father’s job for a local dealership and furniture, and one wanted their father’s ring and cufflinks.

Her sister took a fur coat that she said her mother told her she could have.

One of McArdle’s daughters wanted a sweater of her grandfather’s, and the other wanted all the Christmas village pieces because she would help her grandparents put it up each Christmastime. However, McArdle limited her to a couple of pieces for space reasons.

Most items they put into an estate sale that Beatty held in the home. One item for sale was a Waterford lamp that a friend of Agnes McArdle bought.

“She walked in and cried,” Mary McArdle said. The friend said she’d think of Agnes when she looked at the lamp.

“There’s things we loved of Mom’s, but we just didn’t have room for them,” she said.

However, with all the cleaning and organizing for the sale, now that time has passed she regrets not taking a couple of things: A two-volume set of the history of Fort Wayne and her mother’s recipe cards and cookbooks.

Her parents had helped somewhat by getting rid of things after cleaning out Agnes’ sister’s house when she died. Her aunt seemed to have collected every ribbon and piece of wrapping paper she had received, Mary McArdle said, and her parents spent months getting the house ready for sale.


Fort Wayne dentist Dr. Ralph Merkel, 87, said he belongs to a generation of collectors. He has a collection of ashtrays that he started in 1940 and 630 Hummel porcelain figurines.

“Someday I’ll have these for the kids,” he thought. But his son and daughter don’t want anything to do with them, he said.

He remembers his father smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.

“He had a pack by the phone,” said Merkel, who keeps his ashtrays in an old display case. “He’d have to light a cigarette before he answered the phone.”

His father died of lung cancer, and Merkel thought one day ashtrays would become rare as people stopped the habit. So when he went into the Army Dental Corps during World War II, he’d ask to buy ashtrays at the restaurants where he ate.

“I never stole one ashtray,” he says.

His collection includes a Lufthansa ashtray from the times when smoking was allowed on airplanes.

He was one of the first to join the Hummel Club when it came to America in 1977. The figurines of round-faced children in pastoral scenes originated in Germany.

Merkel had such a fondness for them that during a trip to the company he asked to buy two large figurines of a boy in an apple tree and a girl in an apple tree. When he was told they were only sold to dealers, he wrote to the company and was able to buy them. They sit on either side of a couch in his living room.

He’s not sure what will become of them, the ashtrays or the railroad-related items he has. One of the Avon bottles he has, a replica of a Cord automobile, he plans to donate to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, so he’ll know where that will be going.


Beatty suggests that with holiday get-togethers coming up, now is a good time to give something you want to pass down to a relative or friend.

“Give it with a memory. Why is it important to you,” she said.

Ask what they would want or keep a desk with items where they could go and pick something out at the end of a visit, she said.

“Don’t wait until you’re dead,” she said.