OK, which is it: Is today's younger set too obsessed with iPhones and Ikea, too oriented toward casual entertaining and too opposed to the heavy-duty maintenance involved to have any interest in inheriting the family silver?
Or: Do Generation X/Y/Next folks love vintage stuff, items that connect them to their heritage and special-occasion entertaining, and thus welcome the opportunity to score Aunt Millicent's candelabra and flatware?
Or: Does the way fancy silver has been handed down -- inevitably, inexorably ratcheting up the pressure on each succeeding generation -- prompt young couples to accept it with reluctance, or at least decidedly mixed feelings?
Yes. Yes. And yes.
"You couldn't give me that stuff for free," said one Twin Cities resident, Betsy Jensen.
"I love it," countered another, Beth Broich. "Most of our pieces belonged to my husband's mother, who died the year we were married. I can't help but think each time we use it that it's a way of having her here with us as we celebrate each occasion."
And finally, from Sara Wilson: "I'm more neutral about it, probably to the horror of my family. It's lovely to have, even if it's not too practical."
Aye, there's the rub. It takes a ton of time and effort to keep those Wallace sterling teapots, fish knives and oval chafing dishes looking spiffy. (Maybe that's why a growing number of silver owners are deciding it looks cool to leave it tarnished.)
Jensen and her seven siblings had labor-related reasons for rejecting their family silver: "We had to polish that stuff as kids, and that is not a joyful memory."
Broich spends nine hours ("that's four of my son's naps") cleaning hers several times a year, "and after I clean it, the black stays under my fingernails for days."
Wilson may have found the best solution of all: "My husband actually cleaned it last Thanksgiving," she said, chuckling, "and he was really happy when it was done."
A silver jubilee
If collectors' troves are any indication, many people are following the Jensens' lead, letting the family silver go and creating a buyers' market for the good stuff.
"I got the bulk of my silver from families that don't want it anymore," said avid collector Jim Hansen. "Old silver is actually a pretty good value these days."
The silver business is down, but not out, whether at stores (when you can find it: Nordstrom recently dropped its line due to lack of sales) or auctions. Merchants say young adults tend to buy single pieces rather than sets and collections.
"Individual, unique pieces of flatware, napkin rings, olive and pickle spoons -- that stuff is selling well," said independent dealer Kris Lindholm. "Younger people are not necessarily buying to match a place setting, but more because they like the uniqueness of something. With silver being 'in' in clothing and even fingernail polish, there's some interest in matching pieces to that."
Estate-sale coordinator Marty Owings says that's even the case at auctions, "where you'll see a 40-piece service priced by the piece, rather than by the lot."
Laurie Luehmann, owner of the south Minneapolis store Luehmann, said she sells quite a few plated teapots for floral arrangements, and particularly old martini shakers. The shakers are not technically antique (100 or more years old) but rather fall under the "vintage" category (50 years plus). But the cocktail-concocting vessels' enormous popularity is emblematic of the antiques market in general.
"It's more about what's trendy, whatever becomes cool," said Owings, proprietor of Owings Estate Sale Service in Maplewood. "I can't sell a 17th-century Louis XIV table, but I could sell that blond, kidney-shaped, 1950s table in a minute."
'Vintage' takes the stage
While some young couples are passing on an opportunity to inherit Great-Grandma's sterling chalices and butter knives, baby boomers can hardly tut-tut a preference for iPods over silver gravy boats. A strong case could be made that this too-much-work trend began with the "Me Generation."
A lot of 20- to 40-year-olds actually relish sparkling formality -- especially at weddings, said Jennifer Johnson of Heartstrings Bridal and Event Planning in Hopkins. "Vintage has really become an in thing," she said, citing "silver mint-julep cups and nice silver pedestal bowls for flower arrangements. Vintage weddings are really hot now. Younger people also appreciate silver at holiday time. But the thought of having to clean it is overwhelming, I think."
Not for Broich. "I'll admit that there have been times when life chasing a toddler has been too crazy to keep it shining, and that's a bit embarrassing," she said. "But it's worth it. My husband is an only child, and I remember sitting in his mother's house after she died and finding all this stuff we didn't even know she had. It was like a treasure chest. He'd say, 'We don't need that,' and I'd say, 'Yes, we do!' Of course, I'm highly sentimental."
Sentiment also won out for Wilson, who has flatware that belonged to her great-great-grandmother. Even if she only breaks it out once or twice a year.
"When we had the table set up at Thanksgiving, it looked lovely," she said. "But we don't go out of our way to create those opportunities. We are so busy, and we don't entertain the way previous generations did. Our idea of entertaining a lot of the time is having friends over and ordering pizza. I like to vacuum [beforehand], and that's about it."
And what of the future?
"We probably will hang onto it and give it to my kid," she said, "because we don't know what else to do with it."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643