Lots of heirlooms have significant monetary worth and that's all the heirs care about. In other cases, heirlooms are more highly valued for their sentimental importance than any dollar signs on the bottom line. Sure, new owners could sell recently inherited items for a couple dozen, a few hundred, or even several thousand dollars, but often the thought of parting with a particular item is just too painful. But whatever the motivation for desiring an heirloom, having a treasured or coveted item go missing or get stolen can hit people pretty heavily.
Take this recent news story that talks about a stolen kayak. It's a gorgeous craft -- the owner could probably fetch a fair amount of money for it -- but at first glance, it doesn't necessarily look like something a person would miss deeply. Then you read about what the kayak means to the woman who owns it -- that it serves as a visual reminder of the hours and hours she spent with her now-deceased father helping him hand build the watercraft from scratch -- and it quickly hits home how the loss of a seemingly mundane heirloom can really bite to the core.
Luckily in this case, after the kayak was stolen and later abandoned in a ditch, a couple of kind Samaritans stumbled across it and took it upon themselves to attempt to locate the proper owner. But the story could have easily ended in heartbreak, with the kayak gone forever and the woman left with nothing substantial to represent those hours of bonding with her father.
The methods used to try to recover the kayak included good old-fashioned newspaper advertisements and social networking, mixed with online activity. Word of mouth cinched the knot in this story, but more and more people are also turning to homegrown Internet resources like craigslist and heirloom lost-and-found databases like this one to track down lost or stolen items. By submitting key details about the heirlooms, both the people who've found potential heirlooms and the people who've lost them can connect and try to get everything back to the person it matters to most. Photo albums, baby books, family bibles, autographed yearbooks, marriage certificates, love letters, wartime diaries -- lots of items make the list as potential heirlooms.
Another route is to search government-run databases, such as the National Association of Unclaimed Property. Often you need to make claims within a certain amount of time (and the window varies from state to state) but it might be worth taking the time to search if someone you know died within the past few years. Safe deposit boxes containing family heirlooms quite commonly wind up in state custody, especially if heirs didn't know they existed in the first place.
If the issue is clearly a stolen rather than a missing heirloom, it's a good idea to file a police report as well. You want to make sure you're on the books as the owner of the item in case it ever pops up, and they can help you track it down.