That’s My Story – Shaky Family Histories no Guarantee of Provenance

Sears did not make this cabinet, as opposed to the story told to me by the owner. It was factory-made in the early 20th century and may have been sold by Sears but it was not manufactured by the company.

The life story of an antique—where it’s been, who owned it and how it came to be where it is—is known as the “provenance” of the piece. A good provenance is supported by documents or photos that verify the story. These might include bills of sale, household inventories, wills, gift receipts and contemporary photos. In other words, things of the period of the piece, usually generated by a disinterested third party, that confirm the history attached to the piece.

On the other end of the provenance scale, often the most unreliable sources for the confirmation of the history of a given artifact is family history, handed down from generation to generation. It seems that the oral history of artifacts—like the family history itself—often gets a little extra handling in the “handing down” process.

Over the years, I have heard quite a number of wonderful family stories that burden the current owners of family artifact. Sometimes I just go with the flow, but sometimes a little research and a few facts can set the record straight (with only some slight damage to the family reputation).

Following are a few of the family fairy tales I have helped track down:

A reader from Georgia wrote that according to the family story, the bed he now had belonged to Herschel V. Johnson, the governor of Georgia from 1853 to 1857. He used the bed prior to and during his term of office. The governor died in 1880. He wanted to find out who made the bed and how much it is worth.

The style of bed was Federal from the early 19th century and would certainly seem to fit with the family story. However, since the governor died in 1880, it is unlikely that he ever saw, much less used the bed. The attaching hardware on the side rails was the primary clue that this was a factory made Colonial Revival bed, made around or after the turn of the 20th century, most likely in the 1920s. The stamped-metal hooks engaging pins inserted in the headboard and footboard is an arrangement that did not show up until very late in the 19th century, and then usually as only one hook instead of the two shown in a photograph, which are more commonly found in the 20th century. While it is true that the side rails or attaching hardware could have been replaced in the past, the headboard showed no trace of any other system, such as a bolt that would have been employed on a period bed. The round wire nails that attach the inside rail and the end block to the side rail are another clue. The round-headed wire nail was not developed until the 1880s.

Another of my favorites involved a reader who sent me a series of photographs of a cabinet. According to her family history, the cabinet was hand-made of solid mahogany. The reader drew my special attention to the big gouge on the front of the cabinet. That gouge was the result of a Civil War bullet fired through the house during a battle. Her grandfather had assured her the cabinet had been in the family for several generations before that and she wanted to know the value of the cabinet and the premium to the value that could be ascribed to the Civil War bullet hole. Unfortunately, I had to inform her that her family history of the cabinet had the same validity as the Georgia bed story. Turns out, the cabinet was made for the storage of phonograph records, which pretty much ruled out the Civil War connection. A quick glance at the photos revealed that the cabinet was not made of solid mahogany. So much for family history. To find a real good family story about the cabinet I suggested she find out who in the family really owned it and what happened to the old gramophone and the lacquer discs.

The attaching stamped-steel hardware on this side rail pretty much rule out the use of the bed by the mid-19th-century governor of Georgia. This type hardware as not developed until the turn of the 20th-century.

The final story involves a Sears china closet in very good condition and original finish. The lady who had it said it had been in her family for four generations and was one of the very first ones Sears ever made. It was quite valuable because of that. It makes a good story. Unfortunately, it isn’t true. Sears did not make any of its furniture; it was all contracted out or bought wholesale from regional suppliers. A careful reading of any of the old Sears catalogs, such as the reprint of the 1902 edition, will reveal little hints in the text about the outside sources of the goods. For example, on page 746 of the 1902 book is the following: “Our dining room and kitchen chairs are strictly high grade, made for us under contract by the best maker in America. It is made by one of the finest furniture manufacturers in the country whose name is a guarantee of material.”

The quarter-sawn oak china cabinet had the stylistic elements of the late American Empire period of the 1850s, which includes the turned-under feet and the modest “S” scroll of the front stanchions. But this cabinet was a 20th-century piece, ranging anywhere from 1900 to as late as 1920. This style cabinet was called a “Colonial” cabinet in the early 20th century in an effort to tie it to the Colonial Revival movement that was then (and is still) underway in this country. Cabinets of this period and style range in price from $500 to $2,000 depending on condition and this “unique first edition” was no different.

Family history can be fun, especially if you like to do genealogy research, but its use as a provenance source for a family treasure is always risky at best.

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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