I once had a professor who made it his personal quest to eradicate the word “unique” from the pages of his students’ writing. He spent what felt like a semester arguing with us about the overuse, non-uniqueness and meaninglessness of the word. Like the rest of the students, I gripped my desk in futile effort to defend the word. To this day, I treat the word like the name of Harry Potter’s nemesis and cringe whenever I see it. Now I’ve found my own word vendetta and the object of my disdain is the word “value”.
Recently my mother moved into a medical care center (nice term for nursing home). This left me with a garage full of her stuff; many of them are antiques. Several items are from the 1800’s and were hand made in Pennsylvania. I’ve commissioned a few to a dealer in Denver and am trying to sell a few on my own using the usual venues of Craigslist and eBay. The dealer told me that many of the pieces are valuable and if I were on the East Coast, they would probably move quicker and sell for higher prices than they will here. A clock dealer told me that the 18-hour clock made in upstate New York might have sold for around $500 a few years ago, but now the market might only yield $150 or so.
So, the subject of value has been high on my radar lately. Just because something is valuable, doesn’t mean it has real value. Valuables aren’t necessarily assets.
My son likes to watch the show Pickers. It’s fun to see the stuff these guys find. At the end of each episode they place values on the items they’ve picked, most of which they have not resold. Usually they value the items much higher than what they paid. Is something valuable if no one wants to buy it?
In another example, I just finished reading the The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. In this memoir, her parents constantly struggle to afford basics like food and shelter. Her mother owns land that she inherited but won’t sell because her grandfather told her you should always hold on to land. When the kids find a large diamond ring among the dirt and trash of their ramshackle house, their mother refuses to sell it because it makes her feel elegant and increases her confidence. Later when she is homeless, she still won’t sell the ring. Is sentiment of value? Is an item valuable if it makes you feel good to possess it?
People often confuse valuables with assets. Value is a subjective measure of worth. Assets have exchangeable worth that can be converted to cash. A possession is just a thing. It takes up space and can consume you more than you consume it.
While cleaning out my mother’s apartment I had to assess every item. Is this valuable to me or would it mean more to someone else? Do I really need to continue the lugging around of my grandmother’s furniture as my mother has? Do I need the memories associated with these things?
I ended up giving away a ton of stuff, but it made me feel much better than trying to scrape a few dollars out the items. I saw how gladly the people took salt and peppershakers, framed prints, forks and teacups. It made me happy to see them thrilled by acquiring these things for free. I don’t miss any of the things I got rid of which confirms that they offered me no value.