April 2012 Family Archivist: Finding Missing Heirlooms

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

Ask the Archivist: Heirloom Hunting

Ever wish someone in your family had managed to save Great-great-grandpa’s Civil War letters or your fifth-great-grandmother’s Colonial era needlework? Joy Shivar started the heirloom exchange to reunite such items with their families. Here, she shares advice for finding your clan’s lost-lost treasures.

Q. How would genealogists know what family heirlooms they’re missing?
Listen to stories and review old photo albums with artifacts in mind. Then ask around: “I wonder where that old [insert object] went to?” A discussion may uncover leads.

Q. Where do heirlooms that get separated from their families usually end up?
As much as 90 percent of museum-quality documents are in private collections. But items that wouldn’t be considered museum-quality may be of urgent importance to genealogists—and many are with antique dealers or people who rescue heirlooms from yard sales and try to find their owners.

Q. How can genealogists find lost documents and photographs?
People use sites such as GenForum to find other descendants who may have inherited items. I’ve also heard of researchers tracking down second wives to recover orphaned heirlooms. Often, these items don’t mean as much to subsequent spouses because it’s not their family, and the item can be bought or traded for easily.

Websites such as DeadFred collect photos with names on them and offer scans for free. You can check eBay listings, too, but those are up for a short time and the description may not offer enough detail to identify your orphaned heirloom. Our family heirloom exchange advertises heirloom items with family connections that are for sale from antique dealers and others. We give all surnames associated with each item. Members of our service are notified if new items match their surname list.

Q. Tell us about an item you reunited with a family.
We still get Christmas cards from a lady in California who discovered her grandfather’s WWI sword on our site three years ago. Another family found a yearbook from 1919; their grandchild was named after the person in the yearbook.

Q. What’s in your inventory now?

A. We have nearly 3,000 items from every period of history, especially pictures and documents: Family Bibles; wanted posters; Civil War clothing, letters, documents and weaponry; presidential documents associated with military commissions and justices of the peace; Colonial newspapers; black history items such as US Colored Troops documents, fraternity items, and articles associated with the Civil Rights movement; WWI and WWII commendations and artifacts; birth and marriage certificates; Victorian-era calling cards and memorial death cards; and much more.

Archival Action: automate your heirloom search

Time: 20-50 minutes
Cost: $20 or less

1. Create an eBay account or sign in to yours if you have one. Run a search with terms that might help you find an heirloom, such as a surname or the word genealogy plus the name of a hometown, school, military conflict or unit. (Follow eBay’s Search Tips link to learn more.) Experiment with terms until the results are relevant, then click Save Search. You’ll get emails when new listings match your search terms.

2. Log in to your Google account if you have one, or create one at Then go to Enter search terms similar to the ones described in step 1. Sample search results will appear. Once you’ve hit on terms that produce results relevant to your research, click Create Alert. You’ll receive emailed alerts when newly posted online material matches the search terms you specified.

3. Create an account at AncientFaces and enter surnames you’re researching. The website will email you when new photos, stories and recipes are posted for your surnames.

4. Become a member of JustaJoy’s Family Heirloom Exchange service for a $20 annual membership fee. After creating an account, enter surnames you’re researching. You will be notified when new heirlooms related to your surnames are listed.

Resource Roundup

Use these archival resources for completing the project described here.
Ancient Faces
Here, you can search or browse orphaned family photos and documents by time period, category or surname. 
Search the orphaned photos on this site by surname, or run a “detailed” search with additional parameters.
Use this auction site’s tools to  generate alerts when an item related to your family surnames goes up for bid.

Run a surname or keyword search to find items that may be related to your family. A subscription is required to see item details.
From the March/April 2012 Family Tree Magazine