In simplest terms, “provenance” is defined as the origin of something. In the realm of art, antiques, or anything collectible, it’s typically an account of ownership or historical significance of a piece.
Provenance can greatly enhance the value of what may otherwise seem like an ordinary item. An old baseball bat may be an interesting collectible, but what if you were able to prove that it was used by Babe Ruth? The value would be greatly enhanced at that point.
When it comes to art, provenance is the chain of ownership from the earliest purchase or transfer of the piece to the current owner. It may include the original purchase receipt, formal appraisals, or even a sales slip from the gallery or auction house where the piece was obtained.
An item doesn’t have to have been owned by someone famous to have provenance. One of the more interesting items that I sold last year was an antique blond china head doll. They aren’t particularly rare, but what set this doll apart was that it came with an 1850s era picture of the original owner with the doll and a hand written letter from her granddaughter describing both the doll and her owner. “Rosa” ended-up selling for about three times what I would normally expect to get for a similar doll, just because we were able to provide some historical context about her ownership.
Items with historical ties are often purchased by collectors of particular genres. A gentleman who purchased a dinner chime from me that originally belonged to the RMS Queen Mary told me that he also had the ensign (flag), dinner service for 12, and even an original phone booth from the ship. Being able to find one-of-a-kind pieces for unique collections often means that collectors are willing to pay a premium for these items.
So what’s the best way to document the provenance of a particular item if you don’t have a receipt or series of appraisals? Photographs can serve as a good indication of provenance, particularly if the item is photographed with people or at events that can be historically traced. Additionally, an official account of ownership can be provided by a family member related to the item or the current owner of the item. This account is provided in a written affidavit that is signed and then notarized.
Do you or a family member own anything with interesting provenance? If so, please consider e-mailing your story so that it can be shared with other readers in a future issue.
The original article can be found in the August 2014 issue of Southern Neighbor available here: www.southernneighbor.com.