Property Blog: Sell the house, keep its contents

I hate spring-cleaning before a move. It is not, as you may believe, anything to do with the work itself (well, OK, there may be an element of that too). It’s that it destroys the essence of family history. Let me explain.

A few days ago, a distant relative sent me some pictures of paintings that have long been in his family. While I appreciated his kind thought, I must admit I was green with envy. I have never had any old paintings?because someone further up the genealogy chain threw them away when they moved home.

My side of the family appears to be entirely made up of obsessive cleaners and tidy-uppers?a compulsion that I most emphatically fail to share?who always made swift work of disposing of anything vaguely resembling a heirloom (‘clutter’, in their language). Since they changed homes with the frequency of globetrotters and thus were constantly on a pre-move cleaning frenzy, the last two generations of my forebears have ensured that, if I need furniture or accessories, I have to get them from a shop.

I don’t even have the partial consolation of knowing they made a good deal out of it because one of my grandfathers had an unhealthy passion for junk shops?giving stuff away to them, that is.

A dedicated modernist who had some of the earliest cars, fridges and vacuum cleaners to hit the market, he was utterly persuaded that no one would have any remote interest in what he disparagingly labelled ‘old stuff.’ Hence he regularly took trips to the local equivalent of London’s Lillie Road and dumped anything from old photo cameras to intricately inlaid 19th-century bureaux on the shopkeepers. Even my great-great-grandfather’s sword went down that route. Unsurprisingly, the junk shop owners always welcomed my grandfather with unfeigned enthusiasm.

But, in all honesty, I would be miffed even had he been financially savvier and sold the stuff to antique dealers instead, or even held a spectacular country house sale. Thing is, I see old clutter as memories, as a link to my family that was. Which is probably why my only act of teenage rebellion was to salvage some documents and pictures from the tidying-up hordes. And since there is no way of telling what the future generations may value most as a memento, I now err on the side of keeping everything.

This, admittedly, can make life a teeny-weeny bit complicated when you move three times in nine years. It may also elicit the odd grumble from a husband who is responsible for overseeing packing. But in the end, some gentle coercion and a shared belief in the cause of preserving family relics have so far ensured that our descendants will inherit a fair amount of interesting if worthless jumble.

I appreciate that sometimes people have no choice. When faced with huge succession tax bills, country house sales can be a life-saver. Or when stressed by a lengthy house buying process, it may be easier to sell your old stuff or give it away in an attempt to make the move more bearable. But even so, it is worth keeping as many family heirlooms as you can?not just furniture, paintings and jewels, but also photographs, books, the little things that have no value yet make your everyday life what it is. Because one day a great-great-grandchild will treasure what you leave them. With, perhaps, the possible exception of the old crumbling denture that a friend of mine once found in a hidden nook of her family home, safely tucked away for posterity.