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Rinker on Collectibles: Establishing Antiques & Collectibles Provenance

by Harry Rinker (06/04/12).

An individual brought a pair of 1930s men’s golf shoes to a recent appraisal clinic. I was running behind and being pressured to end the appraisal session by my host so that I could attend a preplanned luncheon event. In haste, I gave a quick appraisal for a pair of commonly found men’s golf shoes from that era.

“You don’t know what you are talking about,” he responded. “You did not ask me anything about the shoes. These shoes belonged to Gene Sarazen.”

When I examined the shoes, I did not see any name or other identification suggesting the association. I immediately fired back, somewhat defensively: “How did you acquire them? Do you have a picture of Sarazen wearing them?”

“My mother owned property next door to Gene Sarazen in California. He gave her the golf shoes during one of his visits,” the individual shot back. When asked if his mother was alive to confirm the story, he answered no. When asked if he had a letter from his mother documenting the story or a photograph of his mother with Gene Sarazen, he again responded in the negative.

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His attitude about my expertise and origin worsened when I told him that most collectors would question his purported provenance without better proof. No person likes to have his word questioned. Doubting the word of a person’s sainted mother is tantamount to questioning the word of God.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides two definitions for provenance: (1) origin, source, and (2) the history of ownership of a valued object of art or literature.

Wikipedia offers a more complex explanation: “Provenance, from the French provenir, “to come from,” refers to the chronology of the ownership or location of a historical object. The term was originally mostly used for works of arts, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of fields, including science and computing. Typical uses may cover any artifact found in archaeology, any object in paleontology, certain documents (such as manuscripts), or copies of printed books. In most fields, the primary purpose of provenance is to confirm or gather evidence as to the time, place, and—when appropriate—the person responsible for the creation, production, or discovery of the object. This will typically be accomplished by tracing the whole history of the object up to the present. Comparative techniques, expert opinions, and the results of scientific tests may also be used to these ends, but establishing provenance is essentially a matter of documentation.

Provenance actually has three definitions when applied to antiques and collectibles. The first relates to the stories surrounding the origin or creation of the object. Who designed it? Who made it? When was it made? How was it made? Is it period, a reproduction (exact copy), a copycat (stylistic copy), or a fake? In this case, authentication and provenance are synonymous.

The second definition documents an object’s exhibition, illustration and sale history. Was the object ever displayed or used as an illustration? If it was not illustrated, was an identical piece used an illustration? Was it sold by a prominent auction house? If so, did it appear as a listing in a catalog? This second meaning is the least understood and utilized of the three. My wife Linda’s jewelry collection contains several pieces that were photographed for illustration in various editions of Christie Romero’s “Warman’s Jewelry.” This provenance adds value to the pieces; the amount being open to interpretation.

The third definition traces the ownership of the piece from the time it was first acquired to its present owner. If an object was owned by a famous and/or infamous individual, an additional value is added to the base price. Even if past owners were not famous, a clear provenance helps in establishing an object’s authenticity. This third definition is usually the one being referenced when provenance is discussed.

Family provenance is one of the most difficult to document. Family stories become distorted as they pass from generation to generation. When the story involves aunts and uncles, great aunts and great uncles, or second and third cousins, it is nearly impossible to sort out the lineage.

I inherited a Remington Model 1858 percussion revolver. My father acquired it from a Rinker relative. My father told me that it was carried by a brother of my great-grandfather James Rinker at the Battle of Gettysburg. The problems are: (1) according to family lore, nine of the 11 brothers of my great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Gettysburg and (2) I have no way to prove any of this. My great-grandfather James was the youngest of the 11 brothers in a family of 13 and too young to enlist in 1863. Using Civil War records, I identified from the muster rolls that at least five of my great-grandfather’s brothers were with regiments in or near Gettysburg when the battle took place. If my father told me the name of the brother, I do not remember it. My father died when I was 25 and did not leave any written records about the family pieces that he acquired. I have no pictures of any of my great-grandfather’s brothers in uniform nor any military records of their service. While the story may be true, I have no expectations that anyone besides myself will believe it. Paraphrasing Clara Peller’s famous “Where’s the beef?” slogan, where is the proof? There are no markings on my Remington Model 1858 revolver to identify it with its original owner. It is identical to any good condition Remington Model 1858 revolver available in the marketplace.

When conducting appraisal clinics, individuals frequently present me with a family genealogy as means to support their argument that an object came down through the family from a specific individual. I can produce a similar chart for my revolver. With the exception of initialed or named needlework and a few other pieces, most of the objects accompanying the genealogy charts were mass produced, identical to dozens of other surviving examples.

Another time, an individual brought me a Wedgwood basalt teapot with a family genealogy tracing its ownership back to an individual who fought in the American Revolution. Although Wedgwood developed the black basalt formula in the late 1760s, this teapot had an American Federal-style body dating it to no earlier than the 1810s. The original owner could not have drunk tea poured from it during the American Revolutionary war. Period. Could he have acquired it later in life? It is possible. However, the teapot style persisted for over a century. It could have been made in the 1840s, 1860s or even 1880s.

When individuals bring me a daguerreotype or cabinet card picturing a man, woman, child or family, my first question is “who is this?” The stock answer is: “It came down through the family but I have no idea.” “Wrong answer,” I respond. I tell them to go back through their family tree, pick a relative they would like it to be, and assign the name. “Who will know,” I say jokingly. The audience laughs. But, who would know?

Historically, antiques dealers were very generous in their attributions of pieces to famous individuals, events and places. An object had more mystique and value with such associations. Buyers accepted these provenances without question. The antiques dealer was the expert.

The standards of proof required for provenance changed as the 20th century drew to a close. Modern scholars and buyers no longer blindly accepted the stories associated with pieces. They required irrefutable proof.

Provenance has become big business and worth money, especially at the high end of the market. From baseball uniforms to firearms, an historic provenance can add between three and 20 times to the value of an object.

Next week, Part II of “Establishing Antiques and Collectibles Provenance” will discuss the methodology used to establish provenance. You also might enjoy a journey back in time and read “Family Stories” (Column #902). Dana Morykan has posted it on my website.

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site..

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2012

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One Response to “Rinker on Collectibles: Establishing Antiques & Collectibles Provenance”

  1. Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:

    Harry:

    You are so right! As a Worthologist specializing in presidential, White House, political and vexillology (flags and seals), I have similar stories about provenance.

    I was presented with an image of JFK looking through binoculars at a military event and was asked what the binoculars are worth since JFK had handed them to their father which is now part of his estate. I had to explain that unless it was written down somewhere that JFK had given them to her father the value is on the binoculars, not the association.

    On the other hand, I was able to verify the authenticity of a suit that was made expressly for President Obama when he was a senator by tracing back the label sewn inside. It was bought at a Goodwill-type store for a few dollars, but because the suit was sent to the remainder pile by the manufacturer by accident, technically the suit was still owned by now President Obama. It’s possible the guy who bought it would probably have a hard time selling it because of ownership issues.

    There was also the case of an auction selling an Abraham Lincoln inaugural silver chalice for near $250k. Unfortunately, someone had engraved a rather large presidential coat-of-arms directly onto the chalice that didn’t exist until 1945. The provenance of the silver chalice may not be questioned, but that it was defaced nearly 100 years later was not left in doubt.

    And there are more. Stories have great sentimental value, too, but only to the family who owns the object. If being sold, the new collector is interested only in the object with the story coming in somewhere well down the line, unless it is properly documented.

    As President Reagan was fond of saying, “Trust, but verify”.

    Tom Carrier
    Worthologist

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