What's it worth to you?

The picture above is of my dad, Ensley Tiffin, in 1931 (about 16 years old) working on his stamp collection.  Philately was a hobby he continued to enjoy throughout his whole life.  I never could get interested in it, unfortunately, although I did benefit from his collection when he would let me use an appropriate stamp to supplement a school report (e.g., if I were writing a report on a historical figure, he let me attach one of his stamps honoring that person, which would always impress the teacher).  After a long day's work and after a good supper, Daddy liked few things better than to clear off the dining room table, set out his albums, hinges, and other accoutrements of his hobby, and pore over his stamps.

I remember one day his saying to Mother, "If I die first, don't just toss all this stuff; there might be some valuable stamps in here."  And so it was that after Mother's accident when we were cleaning out her house, my sister and I took Daddy's stamp collection to a local hobby store to get it appraised.   We had no idea if it was worth a lot of money or worth nothing, but we wanted to honor the man who had worked so hard on it all his life, whose eyes lit up at the thought of some free time to enjoy it before life's responsibilities claimed his limited hours, as they always did.

As we lifted the heavy albums from the trunk of the car and took them into the store, we reminisced about how precious these were to Daddy, how we can still picture him totally absorbed in using his tweezers to place the stamps in their appropriate places, how he would occasionally pick a stamp up and talk about it.  We were proud that we were finally following Daddy's wishes of getting a formal appraisal of his collection.  The appraisal visit was disappointing, though - not because the collection was worthless (which it basically was), but because the owner seemed bored, randomly glancing through the books, talking most of the time to another customer while doing it, and never seemed to appreciate the story behind the collection or what it meant to Daddy (who, my sister remembers, had bought a lot of his supplies from that very store through the years).  The owner basically told us that the collection only had sentimental value, and that if we didn't want it, we could try to sell it at a yard sale.  It was a cursory dismissal of one man's lifetime achievement, a hobby in which he invested countless hours and a good deal of money, and which was filled with memories in the minds of his two daughters.  The appraiser did not give enough respect to what we had brought him.  We weren't out for money; we were there to honor our Daddy's story.

So my question is - is the collection worthless or is it really priceless?

I was reminded of that day as I watched the stock market this week tumble, recoup, tumble, up and down and sideways after the debt ceiling fiasco.  It is amazing to me that one day a stock is worth a lot money, and the next day it isn't.  One day you can sell a "collectible" for hundreds of dollars because it is "popular" right now, and the next day you can't even donate it to a charity.  Your house is worth a certain amount and in the next minute, it has lost half its value.  Yet, it's the same stock, the same figurine, the same house.  What gives?

How do we determine what things are truly worth?  Value is so fleeting and unpredictable.  They say something is only worth what someone would pay for it; therefore, the whims of society, fashion, collectors, investors, determine the worth of anything.

But as with the stamp collection, that is just not true.  "Sentimental value" sounds so trite, but sometimes that's the most important value there is.   Have you ever watched Antiques Roadshow and seen the reaction of someone who has been told that his family heirloom is worth a fortune?  You hardly ever hear anyone yell, "Whoohoo!  I'm going to the auction house tomorrow so I can buy that boat I've always wanted!"  Most of the time, they give a big grin, eyes wide in surprise, because their "sentimentally valuable" family heirloom has just been validated in a way by society.  What they knew in their hearts was precious has been verified to have great financial worth.  No matter, they say - it will still remain in the family and passed proudly down from one generation to the next with its accompanying story.

It all makes us want to take the time to figure out what is truly worthy in our lives - not the most expensive thing we own, maybe nothing we can sell or would even want to sell, maybe something nobody else would care about but us.  That stamp collection is priceless because of the story that comes with it, the memories it holds in our hearts, a poignant physical reminder of the man who cherished it, and the fact that we cherish that man.  Physical things are just symbols of what we truly value.  And those values don't change on the whim of the American economy.  Thank goodness!  In the end, they can take away a lot of our material things in this world, they can reduce the value of our house, they can withhold more from my paycheck, but memories?  As the old song goes, "No, they can't take that away from me."