Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: The gift that keeps on giving

This reader's boyfriend gave her a valuable item that once belonged to his mother. Then they split up. Should she keep the gift? Sell it? Or return it?

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

Five years ago, when my then boyfriend’s mother died, I asked if I could have a Victorian picture of hers. I’d always liked it and we thought it was valueless but pretty. He gave it to me. Since then, I finished with my boyfriend – but we're still friends – and because I’m short of money I took the picture to be valued. It turned out it’s worth £8,000. Should I just sell it behind his back, or tell him about it – or should I split the proceeds with him? I don’t know what is the right thing to do.


Yours sincerely,


Virginia says...

This is a real Gorgon’s Knot  of a problem. So let’s start unravelling. You were given this picture so, legally, it is entirely yours. You can do what you like with it. Deface it, give it to charity, keep it  or flog it.

But then you were given the picture “as a present”. How would you feel if you were to spot a present you’d given someone a couple of days later on eBay? Bit of a slap in the face, don’t you think? And add the fact that it was not just any old picture. It was a picture that “belonged to his mother”. By selling the picture you’re not just saying that the relationship with the guy meant very little to you, but you’re also, in his eyes at least, saying you have no interest in his mother, you’ve forgotten her kindness to you, and you’re translating the whole emotional aspect of it all into cash. 

I think it would take quite a few more years to pass – like 25, actually – before your boyfriend wouldn’t experience quite a few pangs on learning of what you  plan to do.

I’m tempted to advise that you simply sell the picture behind his back and say nothing about it. That is, unless he won’t notice a large gap on the wall in your flat where his mother’s picture used to hang. And if you’re really certain he’s not going to come across the picture in an antique shop or in an auction room. 

Might it not be more sensible to tell him that a friend of yours, who knows something about these things, saw the picture and told you it was probably worth quite a lot of money. On hearing this, you got it valued, and discovered it’s worth about £8,000. You’re now in a dilemma because you can’t afford the insurance on the picture, so wondered if he’d like it back. Or, you could add, you could sell it and perhaps split the proceeds.

What, you could ask, would he like you to do?

He’d have to be a pretty cold-hearted fish to say he wanted it back, without offering you something for it, since it was a gift. He would be very unlikely to offer you the money to insure it. So I think the only option he could take would be the splitting the profit down the middle one, and even that might make him feel a bit of a creep, since it is, technically, yours.

Surely £4,000 is a small price to pay for the absence of a niggling conscience that will, if I know anything about consciences, be prickling away at you for the rest of your life?

Readers say...

Be honest

You don’t really need to ask, do you? If you had split up horribly from your boyfriend you might reasonably have sold his mother’s gift without telling him, but if you’re still friends then you let him know and offer him half of the proceeds. He might even refuse it – and then you have the full sum and a shining conscience!

Ideally you should ask him first if he minds you selling it – selling a gift is an emotionally complicated business. But remember that any money you realise from this sale is a windfall, and you’re far better off settling for a smaller windfall together with a sense of having done the right thing.

Sarah, by email

Give him his share

Hand on heart, did you really think the charming 100-year-old painting was worth nothing at all? I suggest you sell the picture and go round to your ex’s house with an enveloped cheque for half the proceeds. Explain you have a nice surprise for him and let him open the envelope. Then tell him where the money came from – he is bound to be delighted. If you were to tell him before the picture were sold, he would be bound to agonise over the “lost” £4,000, rather than rejoice at this new riches.

Paul Hamer, by email

Next week’s  dilemma

Dear Virginia,

Recently my daughter died. Since then I have received several letters and “sympathy” cards, but no one visits me. Some people phone but what I need most of all is to be visited. I have “friends” and relations nearby but they all keep away. I remember years ago a colleague’s son died. She was never alone – family and friends all came and sat with her. My relations all say they are praying for me (they are Roman Catholic) which comforts them but not me. What I need is company. What can I do?

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Dora to do?

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