With the large number of antiques and collectibles appraisal shows on television, some worthwhile and informative and some not, you have surely heard the expression “What a wonderful provenance” or “With such an excellent provenance it surely would sell at auction for…” So what exactly is a provenance and how do we get one, especially a “wonderful” one?
The word provenance comes from the Middle French word provenir, which means, “to come forth.” With antiques it means a little more. In general antiques-related terms, it refers not only to the source of the item but also to where it has been all these years and in whose possession. In other words, the genealogy of the piece.
And like genealogy research, it is very easy to cross great chasms of fact on tremendous leaps of faith. If the ancestors of everybody who claims it had actually arrived on the Mayflower it would have taken the 7th Fleet to ferry the Pilgrims from England. And if George Washington had slept in every bed for which he is given credit, he would have rivaled Rip Van Winkle.
With provenance, as with genealogy, family oral history is the least reliable of all possible sources. Too much is at stake in a family history and very often, as in war, the truth is the first casualty. Pride, adventure, black sheep, poor relations and skullduggery often tint family oral history more than the mere facts. It sounds a whole lot better to say that great-great grandma’s dresser came down the Erie Canal on a horse drawn barge and was taken by wagon to the old homestead in the upper Midwest than it does to say she ordered it from a catalog and it came to the local train station in a nailed up wooden crate. It just doesn’t have the same cachet. But it’s more likely closer to the truth and with no paper trail of invoices or shipping receipts who is to say otherwise?
Sometimes you can. And you should if you can. There are always clues, some obvious and some not so but they are there. Take grandma’s dresser for example. If you know certain key furniture construction techniques such as handmade joinery vs. machine made joinery or general stylistic periods you can at least get a handle on the century the piece was built. If it has machine joinery it almost assuredly postdates the horse drawn barge era of the Erie Canal. And if the style is Eastlake you know it doesn’t predate the Civil War. Close inspection may even reveal an overlooked shipping tag glued or tacked to the back of the cabinet. A manufacturer’s stamp may be on the inside of a drawer or even on the bottom of a dust cover between drawers. And a serious rummaging through old books and family papers may turn up the catalog receipt and the shipping invoice.
These are things that genealogy researchers are used to doing and antique furniture collectors should get better at doing, particularly with family pieces. Healthy skepticism and dogged detective work are the common ingredients of a credible provenance. Even in the New England area where family records are generally better than in most parts of the country a clean provenance is rarely handed down without some digging.
The ideal provenance of course begins with an original receipt, preferably from the cabinetmaker who made the piece and hopefully containing the name of the original purchaser. This is reinforced by a series of probate documents and wills which contain descriptions of the piece in question and designate to whom the piece was bequeathed or sold. It is then traced in household inventory listing through the years until the last person in the documented chain bestows the piece on a museum or public collection or sends it to auction where the provenance is pronounced as “impeccable” or “wonderful” by the auction house’s gushing expert. This is the kind of proof required for such things as DAR listings but is seldom found in the real world of older and antique furniture.
Even though we can’t always get this kind of documentation, there are some rough guidelines to help. If you think you know who in the family owned the piece but you aren’t sure how old it is, use the old generation method. Add your age plus 25 years for each generation who owned the piece. That’s very rough of course but it does get you in the ballpark. Also go the library and see what style of furniture was contemporary with your ancestor to see if there is a fit or an incongruity there.
Now that you see how difficult it is to get a good handle on your own family history think of how unlikely it is that the suggested, but undocumented, provenance of a piece for sale at a flea market or over the Web is accurate. Don’t pay a premium for someone else’s leap of faith.
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Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, Identifiication of Older and 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.