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How Important is Provenance with Antiques?
by Bob Brooke


Ask any high-end antiques dealer about provenance, and they’ll probably say it’s imperative. And, yes, the history of antiques that are very old needs to be researched to assure that the pieces are as old as their owners or dealers say they are. But is provenance necessary beyond 1830—the date designated by an Act of Congress in 1930—and the start of the Industrial Revolution?

Though the word provenance comes from the French provenir, meaning “to come from,” its first use was in England during the 1780s. Basically, it’s the chronology of the ownership of an historical object. Originally, art collectors used the term in relation to works of art. The primary purpose of tracing the provenance of an object is to provide evidence of its original production by establishing, as much of its later history as possible. It can also help to authenticate objects, in this case antiques. Comparative techniques, expert opinions and the results of scientific tests may also be used, but establishing provenance is essentially a matter of documentation.

The quality of the provenance of an important antique can make a huge difference in its selling price which can be affected by the degree of its certainty. What was the status of past owners as collectors and is the evidence strong enough to support historical claims. Also, has the object been illegally imported or taken from another country. And a provenance doesn’t have to be lengthy or complicated to be of high quality.

With inherently valuable pieces, the advice and certification of an antique export is a must. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an appraiser. In fact, it should be someone who specializes in that particular type of antique—furniture, glass, ceramics, silver, etc.
However, expert certification can mean the difference between an object having no value or being worth a fortune.

Often a provenance can be as simple as a photograph of the item with its original owner. Simple yet definitive documentation like that can increase an object’s value a lot, but only if the owner was someone famous. Many items sold at auction have gone far past their estimates because of a photograph showing that object with a famous person, including actors, musicians, artists, and politicians.

Provenance refers to the history of an object—who owned it, when and where. It’s to an object what a deed trail is to a piece of land or a building. While mortgage lenders require a deed/title search before granting a loan, few antiques buyers do the same for objects they intend to purchase, especially those in the four-figure and up category.

Identifying a piece of an antique, for example, can be tricky. Generally, the piece’s identity determines its value. The true identity of a piece can mean the difference between an item worth thousands of dollars and another worth a fraction of that.

Given the high stakes, proper identification of antiques might seem a task solely for experts, but there are some methods that collectors can use to get a ballpark valuation. Sometimes the authentication of a piece by a signature or a maker’s label can offer a good bit of information about who made the piece, where it was made, and its approximate age.

An antique’s provenance can also be used as a guide to its authenticity and quality.

The evidence needed for a good provenance comes in the form of documentation. This can be in the form of estate inventories, photographs, or documented inclusion in a museum exhibit or a respected publication. Invoices and auction results from well-known and respected antique dealers and auction houses are also useful. A good example is George Washington’s ice cream maker.

n this case, legend says the Father of Our Country was known to have purchased a "cream machine for ice" as early as 1784. An inventory of his estate in the early 19th century noted two "Pewter Ice Cream Pots" in the upstairs kitchen of Washington's Mount Vernon home. Now that’s documented proof.

Unfortunately, documentation doesn’t always mean there’s a lot of information. All old George’s estate inventory says is that he owned to pewter ice cream pots. It doesn’t say who made them or when he purchased them and from whom. Most of the time the only provenance a piece may have is that it has been within a certain family for several generations, handed down through the family, so the original information has been lost.

Complicating matters are the auction houses which sell antiques. There are thousands of them across the country. Their motto is caveat emptor, or “buyer beware.” Auctioneers, under pressure to sell items for a high price, aren’t necessarily accurate about the history of a piece Many antiques dealers also lack the expertise to properly identify an item. An exception is the high-end dealer selling antiques for four figures and up. The high value of their pieces requires that they be as knowledgeable as possible. Their wealthy customers expect nothing less. But many middle-market dealers who want to sell items as quickly as possible, have neither the time nor the inclination to research the histories of objects they’re selling.

While the provenance of an antique shouldn’t matter in determining its value, in fact, it’s a significant part of an item’s price.

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