When Chelsey Brown started her design blog City Chic Decor in 2017, her focus was on decorating small rental spaces on a budget—so naturally, she often found herself at flea markets. Having grown up with a genealogist father, the e-designer began wondering about the people who’d originally owned the furniture, art and other objects that were for sale. “I realized these items should be with their rightful families, not sitting in a box,” Brown tells Business of Home.
One day, she decided to take that instinct a step further. After picking up a few letters and postcards at various flea markets, she began hunting online for public family records to match the names on the documents. Within 30 minutes, she located the living descendants of the heirlooms she’d picked up. “I was really happy that first day, [realizing] this is something I can do—it’s feasible,” says Brown.
Flea markets became Brown’s regular 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 tracing family heirlooms quickly went viral. Since then, she’s tracked down hundreds of original owners, following a research process that involves scouring online genealogy databases like MyHeritage, old obituaries, newspaper articles, Facebook and even the white pages to get in touch with family members about all manner of heirlooms, including jewelry, photo albums, bibles, artwork, diaries, letters, medals, historical artifacts and books.
In this painstaking labor of love, Brown has discovered that the biggest obstacle is often vendors who don’t want to hand off their items. While she doesn’t charge heirloom recipients for her efforts, she often asks vendors to offer the items back to their original owners for free—but when it comes to objects worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, sellers are not often eager to let go.
The dilemma brings up a question Brown has found increasingly difficult to answer as she’s descended further into the world of antiquing and genealogy—how does an heirloom become disconnected from its original owner, and why is it so difficult to get it back? One answer is the displacement that accompanies tragic events like war, during 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 it, when a person dies, they often indicate who they’d like to inherit their belongings in a will. If those items aren’t put into a trust, however, there may be no one appointed to oversee the estate distribution. “There’s a lot of disorganization that happens when someone dies, and we don’t [always] plan for that,” says Brown. “But people think these families just willingly throw out these items, and that’s not [always] the case.”
When there’s no clear-cut will, that vacuum is often filled by nondesignated family members who may swoop in and take ownership of items in order to resell them, says Brown. From there, misplaced heirlooms can end up scattered in any number of places—flea markets, auction houses, private collections, museums and online resale sites like eBay. The latter has hampered one of Brown’s top priorities: reconnecting living Holocaust survivors and descendants of victims with their lost family members’ letters, documents and photos.
Back in 2013, eBay faced 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, the sales continued with little intervention, profiting sellers (and by proxy, eBay) when billed as “collectibles.” When Brown called out the platform recently for the practice, the company responded by explaining that the items were educational and that it would continue to sell them while reviewing its policy in the meantime.
The educational value of historic heirlooms can complicate negotiations with other parties, too. Even more challenging than sparring with eBay, says Brown, is trying to wrestle an heirloom back from a museum—institutions that are often even more uncooperative than sellers.
Though it’s an uphill battle, Brown takes a cue from other successful genealogists and hobby hunters who practice similar tenacity in their find-and-return missions. As far as she knows, she is the only design professional with this kind of mission-driven heirloom focus—and she plans to keep expanding the genealogy part of her practice, operating on the belief that heirlooms of all kinds are an essential piece of interior design and personal history.
“I always tell people, ‘Don’t get rid of your grandmother’s cabinet,’” says Brown. “We always try to incorporate it into the decor scheme. It’s more than just a piece of furniture—it’s a piece of history, and it tells a story.”
Homepage image: Chelsey Brown | Courtesy of Chelsey Brown