Provenance

This article was published in the July/August 1999 issue of AntiquePrime Magazine & Journal.

For What It's Worth ...

Q. How important is an item's provenance to its value?  

A. Provenance is the origin and history of the property, including things such as its past ownership, any exhibitions or museums where the item was shown, mentions in literature about the particular property, etc.

For provenance to have an impact on value, first the provenance must be supportable, usually with documentation. In Emyl Jenkins' Appraisal Book, the author compares provenance to the "George Washington slept here" signs. If you can't prove George's presence, the provenance is meaningless. Auction houses may include a phrase such as "Property from the estate of ..." in the catalog listing, while an estate sale may provide a certificate of provenance with your purchase. These are means of documenting the history of the property.

The second factor contributing to value in regards to prior ownership is the celebrity of the owner. Your golf clubs up for sale at auction will not realize the price achieved by John F. Kennedy's clubs. That buyer paid a high price because they had belonged to JFK. Without the association with the former President, the clubs would have sold for much less.

Provenance and celebrity alone do not create value. The quality and condition of the item are also important. A flawed or damaged object's value may not be influenced by who touched or owned it. How well a piece was made and what the piece is, are often more important than its provenance. If you have something that is desirable and that other people want, they will pay for it, even if you are not famous.

Another influence on value, related to provenance, is the location where something is sold. I attended an estate auction in a South Dallas suburb. The woman whose estate was sold had been well-known in her town. Many of the town's residents came to the auction because they wanted something to remember her by, sending prices very high. Had the auction been held in another city, many of her friends and neighbors might not have attended due to the inconvenience of having to travel. The auction-goers in any other location might not have understood nor cared about the provenance of the things in her estate.

Here's another example of the effect of location. There is an Eastlake secretary for sale at an antique mall in Dallas. It was passed down through several generations in one of Waco's founding families. With that provenance, Waco might be a better place to sell the secretary. However, the last family member to own it was a Director at a prestigious girls school in Dallas for 37 years. Since the secretary's history can be documented, and the previous owners achieved some celebrity in Waco and Dallas, the value would be higher in either of these cities.

All items have provenance. The provenance may begin with you, or go back many generations. Value may be enhanced by provenance when the owner is noteworthy and when there is supportable documentation.