Death of a hobbyist: treasure thrown out in post-death clean-up
Jenny Rosalky took up embroidering and quilting 40 years ago when she gave up smoking and needed something to do with her hands. Since then she’s made more than 100 quilts for family, friends and charities and filled two rooms of her Sydney home with boxes of fabric.
“I can’t say what the fabric is worth – it might end in divorce,” she jokes. But with the average cost of fabric around $25 a metre, and a minimum of $250 worth in every quilt, deciding what to do with her substantial hoard when she’s gone is no laughing matter.
“People who know nothing about quilting have no idea about the effort that goes into them and the cost,” says the former journalist and public speaking consultant. While her children and grandchildren value their quilts, none is interested in taking up the hobby or understand what her fabric stash is worth.
It’s a common refrain among hobbyists and collectors, who often fear their “treasure” could end up in landfill or sent to Vinnies when they die.
So Rosalky did something about it. She gave away a lot of finished quilts to charity Keep Safe Quilts which distributes them to domestic violence victims. She’s entrusted her fabric collection to two friends in Melbourne who are fellow stitchers. “When I die someone in the family will send them air tickets. They can keep what they want and give the rest to a good home,” she says.
Retired air force transport pilot Bill Baggett is also going a little loco wondering what to do with his magnificent obsession. Inside a purpose-built $40,000 shed on his farm near Dorrigo in northern NSW is a handmade model railway. His locomotives and rolling stock are insured for $35,000 but that doesn’t begin to cover the two tonnes of plaster and 12 years it took to build the scenery and layout.
“It takes one and quarter hours for a train to go around my layout”, he says. “It was designed to be an adventure – as you turn each corner a new vista opens up.” The problem is, it’s built in and can’t be dismantled, making this miniature railway a major headache. If he wants to sell the farm, he will have to waive his railway goodbye.
Apart from telling his kids not to throw it away when he’s gone because it has value, he’s not made any formal arrangements. “At 76, the disposal of this monster is something starting to peck at the back of my brain,” he says. Remains of a bygone era
His fears are well-founded, according to Phillip McGowan, a director of de Groots wills and estate lawyers. He says the issue is especially acute for collectors of things like model trains, stamps and coins that younger generations are not interested in any more.
In a digital age, stamps and coins have lost their currency. Children would rather click and swipe than make things and Generation Y are collectors of experiences, not “stuff” that clutters their minimalist decor. At least, not until they find out what their parent’s or grandparent’s collection is worth.
“The biggest disaster I’ve seen was a stamp collection worth $150,000 that was tossed out as part of a clean-up,” says McGowan. After the owner died, a well-meaning relative cleaned out his home, not realising the piles of stuff in his bookcase had any value.
In this case, the son had known about his father’s stamp collection. But by the time he returned from overseas to help sort out his father’s estate, the rubbish skip had gone to the tip along with a large part of his inheritance. Things might have been different if the collection was mentioned in his father’s will. Where there’s a will
It goes without saying that having an up-to-date will is crucial. McGowan also recommends including a separate, private document with your will for your executors setting out what and where your collection is, what items are worth and what the best method of sale might be. This is known as a memorandum of wishes or a letter of direction.
“If you can, recommend that your executors appoint Person X to dispose of your collection by sale or whatever method is appropriate to maximise its value,” says McGowan. This might be a member of a quilting group or a model train association.
Baggett is a member of a local model train group founded by 90-year-old Norm Mitchell 25 years ago. The group has around 30 members, all aged over 50. “A lot of the boys are no longer with us and their layouts have been chopped up and put on the rubbish heap,” says Mitchell.
So the “boys” decided they would get together when a club member dies and auction their collection so the widow gets as much as she can. They can bid for items themselves or help sell the collection via online auction sites.
Mitchell has been more proactive with his own collection which is worth about $50,000. He used to build full-size trains for theme parks but after a car accident that ended his career he started building meticulously detailed model trains out of brass for collectors. One model alone is worth $20,000. His will states that articles listed will go to a local historical museum and family members have nominated items they would like. The boys will take care of the rest. Know your market
You wouldn’t take a vintage car to the local antique store. Similarly, you wouldn’t put a rare English model train on Gumtree. Maximising the value of items depends on knowing your market.
Some collectibles such as antiques, artwork or even model trains may have a bigger market overseas. Online auction sites have made it easier to tap into cashed-up collectors in far-flung locations, but you need to let your beneficiaries know where and how to find them. McGowan had a client who collected antique musical instruments that were shipped off for sale in Europe after his death.
Even a fellow enthusiast may have trouble finding their way around your collection without instructions, or navigating family disputes without back-up.
While the biggest fear for most hobbyists is that their treasures will end up in the trash, it’s not unknown for family members to go into the house and help themselves to your most prized items before the executor is on the scene.
“If you think people might fight over items, as far as you can, put them where they are secure and forewarn your executors”, says Brian Hor, special counsel estate planning at Townsends Business and Corporate Lawyers.
“It’s a good idea to take photos and give copies to your nominated executors,” says Hor. He says it’s also important to clearly identify items included in your will. An antique watch might have a serial number whereas a quilt might need to be identified by colour, pattern or other features.
Hobbies can give you years of pleasure, but if the thought of someone trashing your treasure is taking years off your life, it’s time to act. Make your wishes known and enlist the help of people you trust to carry them out.