We knew she liked jewelry, but not THIS much!
July 1, 2009 8:53 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to divide a large jewelry collection among 12 inheritors?

A relative recently passed away, and the will states her entire estate is to be evenly distributed among 12 nieces and nephews. Easy enough to do with cash and proceeds from house sale, but what about the jewelry? There are a few heirloom pieces, which will be handled separately, but we're not sure what to do with the "everything else". She has thousands of pieces, ranging in appraised value from a hundred bucks to several thousand dollars each. The inheritors range in age from teens to fortysomethings, with varying levels of interest in the jewelry itself. Eight live locally, four live out of state. To the best of our knowledge, nobody has sentimental attachment to any pieces in particular, yet some would presumably appreciate a chance to go through and choose items that catch their eye.

What to do? Now that we've realized we're dealing with a serious kitty, we want to make extra-sure we do this right. Some have suggested total liquidation before distributing, because basing distribution on estimates alone could get ugly down the road if and when actual sale values don't match appraisal values. Some have suggested liquidating NOTHING, and letting the inheritors have no say in what they get - just arbitrarily dividing into 12 equal-based-on-appraisals piles and handing everyone a big bag-o-jewels. Some suggest allowing those who want to choose their own loot to do so, but is that fair to the out-of-towners who can't be here in person and will be left with the reject bling? Taking thousands of pictures for the out-of-towners to preview seems like overkill.

I've done the googling, know the basic pros and cons. I'm just curious what Real People Like You might think. Ever found yourself in a similar situation and liked/disliked the way it was handled? Or have any other creative alternatives? Thanks in advance - best answer gets a blue topaz ring! [i wish, but she didn't have the foresight to mention that in the will....]
posted by globetrotter30 to Grab Bag (44 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
IANYEL. I've been involved in a few family member's estates, but nothing as complicated as this. Geez, what a mess, although I'm sure that the estate lawyer (hopefully good) will be able to advise the executor on the best way to do this. The executor should work with the estate's lawyer to do this in an appropriate and customary (for that state) way, and should make sure to get all necessary waivers and other documents executed by each of the beneficiaries in order to avoid any issues.

Keep in mind that appraisal and auction will probably cost you 10-20% of the total value of the proceeds, depending on how you handle it.

That said, here's what I would do for the mechanics:

1. Get everything appraised by someone good. Agree on a contract detailing all appraisal charges before hand. It probably makes sense to reach a comprehensive deal with an auctioneer/appraiser.

2. Estimate what the total jewelry collection is worth net of all fees and costs, divide by 12.

3. Determine roughly who wants what and let each person take that thing at the appraised value or "bid" against the other beneficiaries who want that piece, up to the amount that person is entitled to under the prior calculation.

4. Auction/liquidate the rest with a qualified auctioneer (probably the appraiser) and distribute the proceeds net of the "purchased" pieces to each beneficiary, otherwise in accordance with the execution of the will.

Good luck.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 9:06 PM on July 1, 2009

See Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. One of the characters addresses this issue.

If it wasn't so much past my bedtime, I might have been able to give a more precise answer. I hope someone else will come along and oblige.
posted by ellenaim at 9:24 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

By far the simplest solution is going to be to liquidate it and divide the proceeds evenly. Anything else has the potential to blow up in your faces.
posted by Justinian at 9:39 PM on July 1, 2009

A book I read recently handled a similar, albeit smaller, situation by bringing the inheritors together and each select a piece, starting with the oldest down to the youngest, then circling back to the oldest again, until the major items were distributed and everyone was satisfied. The rest was then sold or donated. Those who couldn't be present were represented by another family member who knew their taste and interest. It also provided a nice way for the family members to share and reminisce about their loved one.

With 12 individuals, this may be a bit more complex, but it seemed like a fair way to approach a difficult situation. Perhaps pictures of groups of 20 or 30 items at a time rather than individual pieces could be sent to the out-of-town relatives so they could make some choices to pass on to their representatives.

On preview: Damn, I wish I read this in something as interesting as Cryptonomicon, but unfortunately I came across it in a Danielle Steel novel while flying cross country. The book was pure fluff, but this particular scene stuck with me.
posted by platinum at 9:44 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Can someone do the really tedious task of photoarchiving good images of everything so that the out-of-towners can get a shot at what catches their eye? In exchange for first pics?

If everyone is amiable, several rounds taking turns for of "zomg want want want that" would be nice. You just can't quantify sentimental value. I hate the idea of doing it strictly on liquidation via appraisers value.
posted by desuetude at 9:49 PM on July 1, 2009

Best answer: When my grandma was clearing out her stuff ahead of moving into a retirement community, she gave us all equal amounts of Monopoly money and we had a little auction. We could bid on whatever we wanted, and when we were out of "money," we were out. Of course, some dealing took place, but it was a good way of making sure that people put their priorities where they wanted them.

Of course, that will likely not be the best solution for your situation, given the large number of items. No matter what you do, you need to take all pieces to an appraiser and catalog them.

After that, perhaps you could let the inheritors do a little browsing on their own, letting them prioritize the pieces they want. When they're finished, you can work that out, making sure people get as many of their top choices as possible, and then divide up the rest so that everyone gets an equal amount in the end.
posted by Madamina at 9:51 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Huh. Wow. Pretty fascinating situation. I like iknowiz's suggestions about how to work out the mechanics. My only tweak would be to #3 - I would forbid bidding. I think that could lead to needless bidding wars and hurt feelings. Considering that it sounds like you have 12 people cooperating over a very complicated estate, that's remarkable enough - avoid anything which could threaten this cooperation.

Rather, I would suggest doing a "snake"-style auction - that is, you all draw lots to see who gets to go first, second, etc., and then invert the order at the end of the first round. (So if there were five of you, you'd go 1-2-3-4-5-5-4-3-2-1.) Since you have 12, I suppose some people might get miffed if they draw a late number... but given how large the collection is, it sure sounds like everyone will wind up with something they want.

Obviously, you know your gang best. If you think an auction would produce fewer hurt feelings than a snake draft, go with that. But in my experience, a snake is much calmer and more manageable.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:12 PM on July 1, 2009

Best answer: If you liquidated my grandmother's jewelry out of convenience I don't think I could forgive you for a long time. Converting the jewelry to cash for equitable divvying is not necessarily a formula for success.

A snake draft is one way to go. Perhaps not through all 1000 items, but for a few rounds. Yes, there's some risk in picking. You may pick something because you think its valuable, and all you'll get is a memento.

Still, I be heartbroken if I couldn't select a few items to remember someone. Especially someone who cared enough to want to share their stuff with me.
posted by 26.2 at 10:27 PM on July 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

I would be inclined to cash it out via auction and send everyone a check from the proceeds. If a family member really wants a particular piece, they can buy it at the auction, with the rest of the public. This would also help prevent "Antique Roadshow" moments from souring family relations, when it turns out the nasty little bracelet cousin Jenny chose for $2 on her turn is actually a rare piece worth half a million.
posted by maxwelton at 10:32 PM on July 1, 2009

i'm remember that a friend of mine had to work out an algorithm for "i cut you choose" for more than two parties as a school assignment.

But i never got to hear the answer, so i can't tell you the answer.
posted by compound eye at 10:36 PM on July 1, 2009

You could sell a couple of high value pieces that nobody is particularly interested in having (assuming you can agree on what they are) and use that money to bring the out-of-towners into town to look at the jewelry. That would facilitate the whole 'everyone takes turns picking a piece' thing.

I'd suggest that anybody who is choosing primarily based on value with an intent to sell the pieces be asked to state that upfront, so if there are equally valuable pieces that no one else is interested in for their sentimental or aesthetic value, they can be swapped out if those people happen to choose things other people really do want.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:38 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

ellenaim beat me to my first suggestion, but here's another that doesn't require a supercomputer ...

This is the kind of thing that has the potential to get really ugly. My recommendation, in order to avoid bidding, sniping between relatives, the kind of animosity that brews up when people start bickering over the proverbial free lunch, and your getting bitten in the ass for trying to please too many people, would be this: Have everything appraised, perhaps more than once, by a qualified appraiser. Take the average of the appraisals, and then divide things up by value--either evenly between everyone, or weighted in some way if that's what the will dictates. Then if relatives want to swap or cut deals later between themselves, they can do so, but it will be on their own heads and they can't argue that what was distributed wasn't equitable or fair.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 10:48 PM on July 1, 2009

Rather, I would suggest doing a "snake"-style auction - that is, you all draw lots to see who gets to go first, second, etc., and then invert the order at the end of the first round. (So if there were five of you, you'd go 1-2-3-4-5-5-4-3-2-1.) Since you have 12, I suppose some people might get miffed if they draw a late number... but given how large the collection is, it sure sounds like everyone will wind up with something they want.

We did this for a semi-contentious estate. Went through a whole house that way, and everyone was okay with the outcome.
posted by phrontist at 11:19 PM on July 1, 2009

Phrontist, I'm impressed you could make your way through an entire house like that, especially since there was some tension - I used to get exhausted just doing this with my fantasy baseball draft!

But just to be clear, I was only suggesting doing so for a few rounds - or at least, until everyone has all the loot they want. People can even drop out, and it can even "keep going" with just one person left, because everyone will have a fixed amount against which they can draw.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:41 PM on July 1, 2009

Best answer: Please don't liquidate the whole thing if you can help it. Some of us are very sentimental about belongings of a departed loved one.

Get the whole thing appraised and divide by twelve so you can figure out how much each person should get worth of jewelry. Schedule a weekend where everyone gets a chance to look at the items and decide on a few things they really want. Give out-of-towners advance notice, and if they can't come, speak with them to see if you can get some idea of what would appeal to them. Do some sort of auction; the "snake" style sounds reasonable. For those who can't make it, collect bags-of-jewels that have roughly equivalent value to what attendees are receiving.

Yeah, you can't make everyone happy, but these things don't always have to turn ugly. At least do your best to fairly divide up the goods and hopefully your relatives will just be really grateful with your effort and with being able to hold a remembrance of their loved one.

It can be heartbreaking to have these things, however little or much of value, in the hands of strangers rather than someone who appreciates the sentiment. Sadly, I speak from experience and still feel a tug on my heart for the items taken from me and sold for petty cash.
posted by JenMarie at 12:13 AM on July 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Legally, I'm sure there are all sorts of weird pitfalls here. I've got no idea.

In a theoretical sense, I think this is a really interesting problem. I'm assuming:
  1. 1000 items of widely varying value,
  2. item value is by nature uncertain,
  3. selling the items is not an option,
  4. items are to be divided twelve ways in the most "equitable" manner.
I think the best solution is to randomly assign each item to one person. You could roll a twelve sided die, or you could have arbitrary sets of equal size that get randomly assigned to a person. Afterwards, if people want, they can trade amongst themselves to get meaningful items.

This solution is equitable in expectation. Some person may get more items, or higher valued items, but no person going in has a higher probability of that outcome. It is a fair process, but not necessarily one that will most evenly divide the items according to monetary value. It would also save the appraiser cost (unless you wanted to appraise before trading). This process would work best for a relatively uniform distribution of item values.

Of course, I've cheated a little. I think the big question is what to do if you're willing to sell some items but not others and if appraisers have some probability of error.
posted by pbh at 12:23 AM on July 2, 2009

When my mother died, we did what platinum suggested (above; taking turns selecting a piece, until all were distributed). We also made a deal that nobody would give or sell any of the pieces without talking with the others first and getting their agreement. We're a close and sentimental family, though, and none of us were concerned about the monetary value of the jewelry. So, it might work for you, but maybe not if other family members are looking at cash equivalents. It worked well for us, with nobody having hurt feelings then or now.
posted by Houstonian at 12:57 AM on July 2, 2009

I'm assuming that everything will be appraised at one point or another, so it seems easier to do it upfront. Have them separate the piles based on value, and then do the snake draft. I'm suggesting this, because while most will probably want at least one piece for memory's sake, I can't imagine all 12 actually WANTING jewelry for themselves (not everyone's interested in jewelry). For those who are less interested, perhaps assign a value for them. (e.g. round 1, everyone has to choose a piece that it's in the $500 - $800 category. Those who don't want one can "reserve" $600's worth of eventual cash-in-hand).
posted by mittenedsex at 3:23 AM on July 2, 2009

Understand that appraised value, true market value and sentimental value are three very different things.

One method for this kind of division that I've seen is an open auction with the heirs dividing the auction take evenly. In your case if one family member wants a particular item so badly that they're willing to bid up to $12,000 for it they are in effect paying each other family member $1,000 for the privilege of having that item. If the auction is open there will be dealers and general public who can set the value of the pieces that none of the family members want. Although I saw this done once I wasn't able to see the end resolution among the family and don't know how well it was received, even though it was agreed to initially. The varying financial situation of individuals may be a significant consideration.
posted by X4ster at 3:50 AM on July 2, 2009

Man. I think it's going to be a lot of work to divvy this up really fairly.

Have everything appraised, and tag each item with its price and a unique item number. Photograph everything, create a catalogue of all the pieces, and send the catalogue to all the heirs (either get help creating the catalogue, or ask everyone if you can have an extra cut in return for doing it;-)). Divide the total worth of the jewelry by 12, and tell each heir that she or he gets x dollars to spend. Then do the "snake" style auction, with everyone choosing pieces until they are out of money.

Oh, and tell people if they want to sell any of their items after everyone has made their picks, to give the other heirs first option to buy.
posted by orange swan at 4:06 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do it entirely online. Set up a Website with photos. Don't even bother with appraisals. The idea is to let people choose which pieces they want.
Next set up a draft order. Have someone take a deck of cards. Ace to Q of two suites (that's 12 each isn't it?). place each suite face down on a table. 1st draw is for name, 2nd draw is for draft position. EG Mary gets assigned the Jack, gets picked 4th,(The four) and then drafts 9th (the nine).
Now the participants select their pieces in draft order. It is up to them if they want to trade draft picks.

Fantasy Jewelry Fever: catch it!
posted by Gungho at 5:32 AM on July 2, 2009

If you can get proper appraisals (what the jewelry would actually sell for, not what it's "worth" if you bought it), then you can do a draft, but allow people to select "cash" when there's nothing more they specifically want.

Let's say there's $12,000 of jewelry, for round numbers. Everyone's entitled to select up to $1000 of jewelry, and those selecting "cash" will receive whatever is remaining after others have picked sentimental pieces. This lets those who are sentimental grab what they want (within limits, of course), but lets the less sentimental avoid having to choose between a lesser piece, or a drama-fest.

This is basically the same as divvying it up, but it lets people fairly claim those pieces that are sentimental to them. However, it only works if the most expensive piece is less than 1/12 the total. Otherwise it might get awkward.
posted by explosion at 6:13 AM on July 2, 2009

Response by poster: Wow, thank you for the responses. I've gotten useful tidbits and/or a few good laughs from most all of you. I'm relieved to see I wasn't just missing a completely obvious solution!

We're definitely trying to steer clear of just liquidating everything. Agreed that it's the only way to 100% guarantee everyone's cut is 100% equal, but sentimental value and keeping peace in the family is obviously more important. We've already had most of the pieces appraised; since they were all done by the same appraiser, our thinking is that everyone will run the same risk of +/- difference in appraisal versus market value of their 1/12. Perhaps having everyone sign something acknowledging the split is based on appraisal value only is a good safeguard. I'm very tempted with Luke Parker Fiasco's solution, but the people-pleaser in me screams to let people have at least a little say in what they get.

As for how, I'm not sure that the snake style option is most efficient due to the out-of-towners, and I think an auction among the beneficiaries would be overkill. With such a huge (in the thousands) selection, my hunch is that even if each of the 12 picked out say 20 items they liked, we still wouldn't have any overlap. And I also suspect that as many as half of the 12 beneficiaries (myself being one of them) just aren't that into jewelry and would be bored with even needing to pick out 20! But in the event there would be an overlap, maybe as someone here suggested it's best to not let anyone take things right off the bat, rather just state a preference for it. In the end if more than one is interested in the same piece, we do a lottery for it. Would it be inappropriate to casually check with the out-of-towners what their interest level is? They may very well say something like "Just give us whatever..." or "Set aside something with a ruby in it, other than that I don't care..." or "I'll be on the next plane...", in which case I think things are greatly simplified. As others have said - have a weekend, everyone who wants can come over and peruse and state preferences for up to their 1/12. Maybe then as a courtesy take group pics of those items for the out-of-towners and make sure they're okay passing on these. Resolve any conflicts with a lottery, distribute the hand-picked items, and then randomly split up the rest according to how much "credit" each person has left of their 1/12. I also really like the suggestions to ask beneficiaries to notify the others before deciding to liquidate their cut in case someone wants to buy an item for themselves - hadn't thought of that. In any event, I might not *sound* any less confused now, but I am - thanks again to all!
posted by globetrotter30 at 6:26 AM on July 2, 2009

Each person gets to choose exactly one piece. Oldest to youngest, in the most traditional inheritance fashion. The remainder is divided up into equal 1/12ths amounts by a neutral third party, placed in identical containers, and handed out blindly.

The appraised value of the one favorite piece is deducted from the share of cash each member receives in the inheritance. Thus, if each is to receive $5,000, and one person picks a $1,000 piece, their share of cash is now at $4,000.

The deducted amount of cash from all members is placed into a pool, and once more split into 1/12th shares, split evenly. This way, a member who picks no jewelry gets $1,000 more than the one who picked a $1,000 piece. Split two ways, this would result in $5,500. Split four ways, this would result in the one picking the piece gets $4,250, the others getting $5,250 each, and so on.

Finally, to keep things equal, the highest value jewelry any one family member can take is capped at the amount of cash they are due. So, if each member is only due $2,000, nobody may choose a piece worth over $2,000. All pieces above that are to be sold and proceeds divided evenly.

This way, everybody gets an equal amount monetarily. Due to the way things are split, some members will get more cash, some will get more jewelry. Any pieces that would be too difficult to divide and cause contention are removed from the equation by being sold off. The process is kept relatively short and easy.

Set up a webcam so any out of state member can view the jewelry with some sort of overview. If any piece interests them, bring it close for a more detailed viewing. Since it's only one piece to be chosen, this isn't extraordinarily time consuming, and onyl requires that each out of towner has a computer and internet connection, not even their own webcam.

This lets family members pick out something irresistable if they want to, while making the entire process relatively quick and easy, and should be able to include distant members without too much issue.
posted by Saydur at 6:35 AM on July 2, 2009

Two things:
1. If there are pieces of fine (as opposed to costume) jewelry that need to be appraised, especially with gemstones, it can be expensive. My partner just had about 8 pieces of diamond jewelry from an estate appraised and it was $600 for the licensed gemologists report (including color, cut, clarity, etc). If you are looking at dozens of pieces, you might find the cost becoming prohibitive. You might want to have an appraiser simply divide things into value ranges with a verbal appraisal (much cheaper than written).

2. Now is a horrible time to be liquidating jewelry. Both the estate appraiser and the gemologist said this. Basically, the economy is reducing jewelry to to worth of the the gold/silver/gemstones... and even those markets aren't as strong as before.

I agree with those who suggest a round robin style of dispersal. We did this very successfully in my my family. You could do it for each category based on what the appraiser says: costume, low end value, mid value, high value.
posted by kimdog at 6:42 AM on July 2, 2009

Do a hat draw.
posted by anniecat at 6:45 AM on July 2, 2009

This is a game theory problem. I've been reading Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game theory in Everyday Life, and just read about situations like this. Here is my suggestion, based on what I've been reading.

You will need somebody willing to do the leg work. An impartial third party? Whoever is willing or physically closest?

Have the collection appraised. Divide that value by 12, to get each person's monetary share. Photograph each item (in groups, with numbered labels and possibly a short description?) and allow some time for everyone to have a good look through the collection.

Each person then submits a list of the items they would like to have, along with a ranking from 1 to 10, where 10 indicates they really really would like that item, and 1 indicates they'd kinda like it. They can choose items for their list using whichever criteria they like - monetary, sentimental, a combination of the two, or some other criterion. The list can be as long or as short as they like, but the total value of their list should not exceed their one-twelfth monetary share. Anything they don't want at all would not be on the list.

Then everybody gets assigned a number from 1 to 12. The organizer picks a random number (say it's number 4.) So he or she then looks at Inheritor #4's list, and picks their top-rated item out of the collection and sets it aside for them. Organizer picks another number, and chooses the top-ranked item (that hasn't already been chosen) from that person's list, until one pass has been made. Then toss the 12 numbers back in the hat, and repeat the process.

At some point there will be nothing left to divvy up, or no one has anything else on their list. If there are things left that nobody wanted enough to put on their list, those items are divvied up equally by monetary value.

Whether people want to trade and make deals on their own, that's fine. But at least the initial dividing up was fair, based on each person's idea of fairness - in other words, their criteria for including something on their list.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:13 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

You've gotten some awesome, thoughtful answers so I thought I'd ruin it by bringing in some of my usual sunshine. At forty-something I'm the oldest in my "line" and I can't tell you half of what to watch out for in this enlightening process without sounding like a bitter human being. I've seen little old ladies fill someone's back with daggers, stitch 'em up with barbed wire and sing in the choir on Sunday.

It seems like once the the underwear's thrown out and the phone shut off some people forget what they're doing there. Maybe you could set a guideline that everyone is to conduct themselves as if your aunt is physically there, gifting them with these items. Would those who say they don't want jewelry turn it down if she handed it to them with her own two hands, saying she wanted them to have it? Because basically that's what she did.

I hope your people don't try to step on the teenagers and more distant relatives, because people do that sometimes. Also, imo a public auction doesn't seem fair to those who don't have money to buy jewelry.

Maybe you can find a knowledgeable, impartial, trustworthy helper to help you sort and organize. Riker cases are perfect for organizing stuff like this. With such a large collection there's bound to be lots of bits and pieces of broken stuff that are much desired by people who like to make their own jewelry. If anyone is into that. Also, nice big gaudy flower broaches? Some people would rather have costume jewelry than something measured by ct or kt and some of the costume stuff is actually more desirable, value-wise.

I don't envy you and hope I'm wrong about everything I just said. Hope you'll update when all is said and done- let us know how it went!

yes, my writing structure is atrocious. you should hear me talk
posted by auntbunny at 7:38 AM on July 2, 2009

forgot to preview, sorry. sounds like your stuff may go smoothly :) sorry for crapping the parade.
posted by auntbunny at 7:43 AM on July 2, 2009

I think having a set of pictures would be painful but helpful.

1. to document the jewelry estate in case of future disputes.
2. to allow everyone involved a chance to see all pieces in case there is something they particularly love.

You could make it less painful perhaps by grouping - one photo of ten gold necklaces, one photo of ten gold rings etc.
posted by Billegible at 7:43 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and number everything in the photos.
posted by Billegible at 7:43 AM on July 2, 2009

Take digital photos of everything and trick the internets into sorting them for you with a HotOrNot style site (or pay the Amazon Mechanical Turk to do it). Then do one of the random distributions where everyone chooses, but when each inheritor gets bored they can switch to just getting the next thing on the list each round. People who care enough can continue to choose each time on their own.

Easter egg hunt assigning a group of children from the local school to each inheritor?
posted by ecurtz at 7:44 AM on July 2, 2009

Do not sell.

Get the appraisal, figure out what everyone's share is worth. Get photos: we're talking about a significant pool of money. You can group inexpensive or broken jewelry into lots. Have everyone make a list of what specific pieces (or lots) they want, and order the list. Try to go through the lists in order: if two people want the same piece at the same tier, figure out what you'll do, but it's unlikely. Once those pieces are done (you might want to cap the length of the list), figure out how much of their share each person has claimed, then split up the rest of the pieces to make everyone's share equal.

The person doing the legwork on all this ought to be paid.
posted by jeather at 7:53 AM on July 2, 2009

I am not your appraiser - but formerly I specialized in Estate Jewellery at a retail level for ages, and later headed that department for a few years at an auction house, and I don't miss these situations one bit. I am now years past doing stuff like this, but just want to chime in that an independent, accredited appraiser can (and should) help with determining or family distribution values, and can work with an Estate Lawyer and the Executor to ensure proper disbursement of the items. The appraiser should not be one that buys/or sells jewellery - having no personal or vested interest is one of the aspects that keeps it fair. The estate pays for this - so nobody else is out of pocket. Nobody inheriting really gets a say - which is why one always hopes the Executor is carefully chosen and fair, and why the Executor earns his/her money, and why this part of the job is no fun for all involved. It is a worthwhile expense, and it's terribly sad that your relative didn't receive good advice and help with proper planning beforehand. You all have my sympathies/empathies. iknowizbirfmark's advice follows most of my own experience in this field.

Importantly though, the Estate does not want to be working with insurance/replacement value appraisals for this purpose ("appraisals" is being bandied about here - and it makes me crazy that nobody is being specific about what KIND of appraisals). Depending on the Lawyer's determination, the estate may be working with either Valuation for 'Private' Sale, Valuation for Probate or, most likely, Valuation for Division of an Estate (or a combination of all three). Antique items versus modern items will need to have special considerations too. Appraisals need to be recent too - within the past two years was usual, but due to the current economy, an up-to-date appraisal may work in everyone's favour. There are procedures for fair division using these values, but the nuances will be up to the Executor. Please let professionals help guide this - it's a great plate of beans, but not for the layperson. But, if you need a project, you can make sure this is happening with the correct values at least.

Estate jewellery isn't liquidated, really, except in the dictionary sense of converting it to cash; and usually auction is considered the most fair way (and that's often legislated, so there's no choice) but it's almost never just turned over to someone for the melt value. So, it doesn't normally get valued that way in appraisals for these purposes. It may receive Auction Value estimates, which can be lower - or Resale Value estimates, or even Fair Market value. The Fair Market value of older jewellery is steadier, and so that is nothing to worry about too. (Jewellery, by the way, can have as many as seven different values per piece, depending on the purpose for which they're needed).

Costume jewellery does need to be looked at carefully, as some signed pieces can have more value than jewellery with precious metals and stones. Once, in going through one of the seven cartons of costume jewellery from an estate, I found a "plastic" necklace that had been disregarded by the estate and was lumped in with other costume jewellery in giant freezer bags. It looked like a typical 1980's clunky costume piece; but it was signed Isadora, Paris and it went for about $500. Please make sure everything is looked at carefully.

Anecdotally, my own mother is going through issues with her (monetary) inheritance from my grandmother that was put in trust for her rather than given unconditionally as it was to her two sisters, and I have to keep reminding her "It's a lovely gift, but it was never yours - just be happy for what you're getting." I used to use that sentiment with my clients, as gently as possible: "It is still hers, until it is yours."

It sounds like your family is keeping cool heads about this so far, but I know how ugly feelings can arise from such situations and how it can go either way. There have been great situations where families were prepared and the sales were just expediting the closure of the estate; and Ihave seen families bidding at auctions for what they believe should be theirs - whether or not they actually loved the pieces or the person. Warm wishes for all the best, and the sooner it's done, the better.
posted by peagood at 8:12 AM on July 2, 2009

What we did is very similar to what you plan to do: everything gets appraised and gets laid out with a price tag where people can see it. Folks make lists of what they want, if they "buy" something the value gets taken out of their cut of the inheritance. If multiple people want to buy the same thing roll dice to see who gets it. Anything that doesn't get "bought" is liquidated (my grandma had a lot of tacky/outdated stuff that nobody wanted so no-one was too distraught over liquidation, YMMV).
posted by phoenixy at 8:17 AM on July 2, 2009

You could also just divide arbitrarily by estimated value, and then allow individuals to trade with each other if they want some particular piece that ended up in someone else's hands. If there are really that many pieces, it seems unlikely that anyone would be truly unhappy with what they end up with, and in a sense anyone who cares for sentimental value can think it "fate" that specific pieces landed in their hands. But if they did have their eye on something and luck didn't deliver it, they could then propose a trade of items of equal worth with whoever did get it.

It's true that might be harder for out-of-towners, but this is inheritance, not money being spent, so whatever they receive is an unexpected gift anyway...

The only other thing to keep in mind is possibly having the dividing done by someone who does care about the jewelry, to make choices about whether certain pieces should be kept together (a necklace and a pair of earrings or whatever) as well as trying to make the 12 different collections fair as collections, not just as money. Maybe that partly depends how varied the woman's jewelry was - if she went through many different styles, or this includes many generations of family jewels, there may be an interest in deciding whether each person gets a taste of each or if certain collections should be kept together.
posted by mdn at 8:41 AM on July 2, 2009

Broadly, unless the will says so, there's no need to divide the jewelry evenly, is there? There's only a need to divide the total estate evenly.

So, assume that the value of the monetary inheritances is large enough for this to be reasonable:

(1) Allow everyone to take whatever the hell they want, even if it is of unequal value and even if it exceeds 1/12 of the total value of the jewelry. Go either in traditional inheritance order or in a random order.
(2) Sell the rest -- by construction, the stuff nobody wanted badly enough to say "I want that" -- and put the money in any direct monetary inheritance and the value of the house.
(3) Get each heir's bundle of selected pieces of jewelry appraised (for resale value, probably).
(4) Deduct the value of the pieces they selected plus any cost of appraisal from their total monetary inheritance and divide among the other 11 heirs.

Dealing with the out of towners who can't reasonably be there seems honestly pretty simple to me: allow them to appoint a proxy (probably another heir) to select jewelry for them if they want to, maybe with appropriate paperwork drawn by a lawyer that says YOU MEAN THIS RIGHT WHATEVER THE HELL THEY DO IS OKAY WITH YOU AND IF YOU SUE THEM BECAUSE YOU DON'T LIKE WHAT THEY PICKED THEN YOU WILL KNOW WHAT IT IS TO BE ROASTED IN THE DEPTHS OF THE SLOR THAT DAY I CAN TELL YOU.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:49 AM on July 2, 2009

If you're doing rounds of picking the jewelry, it might make sense to divide the collection into tiers based on value (lets say you have tiers 1-8) and then have the picker pick one item from the top tier and one from the bottom tier when it is their turn, so the first person would pick one item from tier 8 and one item from tier 1. Once all the items in tier 8 are gone, tier 7 becomes the top, once all the items in tier 1 are gone, tier 2 becomes the bottom. This would halve the time of a one-at-a-tiem setup and with a snake style picking order, it would still be pretty even.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:06 AM on July 2, 2009

I went through this when I was 12, and let me say...do not overlook the younger beneficiaries! My Grandmother decided to go through her jewelry with me and my cousins. The collection was a mix of really valuable stuff and costume pieces, with enough of the valuable stuff to go around. I was 12, and my other cousins were upperclassmen in highschool at the time. The way they ended up doing it was incredibly unfair, and so this is a recommendation of what NOT to do.

My older cousins were given their first pick (and let me just say that they each got a "healthy" first pick...they pretty much took whatever they wanted) when I was not present, and was not able to object or lay claim to something that had sentimental value to me. Their feeling was that I was not of the age yet that I would care about any of the "real" jewelry, and that I would be satisfied with picking from the leftovers of the costume pieces. At a later date, when everyone else had gotten their prized pieces, I was allowed to look through what was left. If someone had already taken something I wanted, which they did, and which had enormous sentimental value to me, it was tough luck. I ended up with some gaudy fake me out rings that don't fit, and are too cheap to be sized, and some pendants that were obviously (ugly) costume and are sitting in my jewelry box never to see the light of day. The only thing I got of any value were a couple of gold pinky rings that I treasure - but even still, I know the only reason why I got them is because they are engraved with my Grandma's last initial, which I share with her and the others did not.

This left a bitter taste in my mouth at a young age about that side of my family, that has yet to go away 10 years later. I know it's petty, and that I shouldn't be so concerned with material things, but dammit all I wanted was to be considered in the entire process.

They thought I was too young to care, but didn't even ask me first to find out that yes! I cared a great deal! My relationship with them has not been the same since.

My bottomline advice: At least ASK everyone involved of their interest level, even the out of towners, and the younger nieces/nephews of the bunch. Even if you're positive that they couldn't give a rat's ass what you do. ASK if they'd like to be involved, and if so, how much. You may be surprised to find that someone is willing to lend a hand in sorting the items, or that someone has no interest at all and would just like a bag of leftovers. Either way it doesn't hurt, and you could save a lot of hurt feelings that could potentially turn into grudges.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 9:33 AM on July 2, 2009

Have someone knowledgeable from the 12 ("the divider") divide into twelve lots of roughly equal value. The divider should get outside advice on the appraisal value.

Take pictures of each lot and note the value of each item and the total appraisal value of the lot.

Then allow people to choose lots going from youngest to oldest.

Use a 12-sided die to determine when the divider chooses.
posted by charlesv at 9:47 AM on July 2, 2009

I also like Madamina's idea of the auction system using Monopoly money.
posted by charlesv at 9:49 AM on July 2, 2009

We had a similar situation when my (childless) great-aunt died and had a stash of jewelry to be divided amongst her sister's grandkids. Much smaller & simpler, so YMWV*, but here's what we did:

The one local grandkid took pictures, on a background that indicated size.

She sent the pictures to me and I set up a voting website. This was some years back, so you could probably find some off-the-shelf code now.

We all voted on which pieces we wanted. Nothing was especially valuable, so it was all about personal preference.

Where multiple people were interested in the same item, bargaining ensued. It was a small enough group of people (4 or 5?) that it was easy enough to handle by email.

Actually, my sisters and I have used a similar system since then when mom goes through one of her clean-out phases and is getting rid of old jewelry or items of sentimental value, only now we use Flickr with the photo set to private/family-only.

* Your mileage will vary.
posted by epersonae at 10:49 AM on July 2, 2009

Have a dis-interested someone: Weigh the entire collection, divide into 12ths, put each 12th of the collection into one of 12 unmarked and sealed envelopes. Get all 12 people together and each of them chooses and envelope.

Alternatively, you could number each envelope and have each person choose a number.

Or, maybe this is the stupidest suggestion yet.
posted by bz at 11:09 AM on July 2, 2009

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