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How This Design Blogger’s Genealogy Journey Revealed the Dark Side of Antiques

When Chelsea Brown launched her design blog City Chic Decor in 2017, she focused on decorating small rental spaces on a budget – so naturally she often found herself at flea markets. Growing up with a genealogist father, the e-designer began to question who originally owned the furniture, art, and other items that were for sale. “I realized that these items had to be with their rightful families, not in a box,” Brown said. Home business.

One day, she decided to push this instinct a little further. After picking up a few letters and postcards at various flea markets, she began searching public family records online to match the names on the documents. Within 30 minutes, she located the living descendants of the heirlooms she had collected. “I was really happy that first day, [realizing] it’s something I can do, it’s doable,” Brown says.

Flea markets became Brown’s usual haunt, where she went every Saturday and Sunday in search of new items to reconnect with their owners. Her efforts multiplied when she began documenting the process on social media, where her stories of searching for family heirlooms quickly went viral. Since then, she has tracked down hundreds of original owners, following a research process that involves combing through online genealogy databases like MyHeritage, old obituaries, newspaper articles, Facebook and even the white pages to get in touch with family members about all kinds of heirlooms, including jewelry, photo albums, Bibles, artwork, diaries, letters, medals, historical artifacts and books.

In this painstaking labor of love, Brown found that the biggest hurdle is often sellers unwilling to hand over their items. While she does not charge inheritance recipients for her efforts, she often instructs sellers to offer the items to their original owners for free, but when dealing with items worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, salespeople aren’t often eager to let go.

The dilemma raises a question that Brown finds increasingly difficult to answer as she descends into the world of antiquities and genealogy: how does an heirloom become disconnected from its owner? origin, and why is it so difficult to recover it? One answer is the displacement that accompanies tragic events like war, in which heirlooms are easily lost or placed in the wrong hands. Another problem, she says, often has a lot to do with family drama.

As Brown explains, when a person dies, they often indicate who they wish to inherit their property from in a will. If these items are not placed in a trust, however, there may be no one appointed to oversee the distribution of the estate. “There’s a lot of disorganization that happens when someone dies, and we don’t [always] plan for it,” Brown says. “But people think these families are throwing these things away on purpose, and that’s not [always] the case.”

When there is no clear will, that void is often filled by unnamed family members who may step in and appropriate items for resale, Brown says. From there, misplaced heirlooms can end up scattered in a number of places: flea markets, auction houses, private collections, museums, and online resale sites like eBay. The latter hampered one of Brown’s top priorities: reconnecting living Holocaust survivors and descendants of victims with the letters, documents and photos of their lost family members.

In 2013, eBay faced a public backlash for selling Holocaust artifacts, after which it issued a statement saying it would no longer allow the sale of such items – yet over the years sales have continued with little intervention, benefiting sellers (and by proxy, eBay) when billed as “collectibles”. When Brown recently called the platform for the practice, the company responded by explaining that the items were educational and that it would continue to sell them while revising its policy in the meantime.

The educational value of historical legacies can also complicate negotiations with other parties. Even harder than battling with eBay, Brown says, is trying to reclaim a legacy from a museum — institutions that are often even more uncooperative than sellers.

Although it’s an uphill battle, Brown draws inspiration from other successful genealogists and hobby hunters who practice similar tenacity in their search-and-return missions. As far as she knows, she is the only design professional to focus on this type of mission-driven inheritance – and she plans to continue to develop the genealogical part of her practice, based on the belief that of all kinds are an essential part of the interior. conception and personal history.

“I always tell people, ‘Don’t get rid of your grandmother’s closet,'” Brown says. “We always try to integrate it into the decoration scheme. It’s more than just a piece of furniture, it’s a piece of history and it tells a story.

Home page image: Chelsey Brown | Courtesy of Chelsey Brown