so basically there is such a thing as an oral contract and it is just as binding as a written contract, the only difference being the proof factor (the party alleging the contract has the burden of prove i.e. the plaintiff).
To find a contract, there are 4 elements:
3. Intention (meeting of the minds)
4. Consideration (fair value exchanged)
A contract can be voided by the court if it is against public policy (ie compelling a person to do a criminal act - so encouraging a person to refrain from a criminal act would not be a violation of public policy)
So the plaintiff can submit declarations from family members, and the fact that the items were treasured heirlooms will help as the judge will took to the totality of the circumstances.
The court can order specific performance-ie the return of the items , in lieu of the monetary reimbursement (if you can ascertain the monetary value and it is high, it can be used as a negotiation point- ie return the property or pay "X", giving an incentive for the return of the property which is the desired result).
For specific performance, the court can enforce this by the contempt power if the person willfully and intentionally violates a court order re: specific performance. This can result in award of attorney fees, fines even jail (under extreme circumstances).
For family members, sometimes it is helpful to first attempt mediation and then file for specific performance if that fails.
information on contracts here:
Also the possibility of the court ordering the award of attorney fees as sanctions can also be used as negotiations. So it may be worthwhile to first write a formal demand letter and then filing for specific performance if that does not have the desired result.
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Information provided is for educational purposes only. Consultation with a personal attorney is always recommended so your particular facts may be considered. Thank you and take care.