What Is Provenance and Why Do Antiques Dealers Emphasise It So Much?

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There’s a term in the world of antiques that gets thrown around a lot – provenance. An item’s provenance is an indication of how valuable it is, not just because ‘it is old’, but also because a lot is known about it – the story, the history – where it was made, who by, and who owned it. All of these details add up to make an interesting item a valuable and special one.

Provenance is what makes an item truly collectable, and it gives historians a lot of insight into not just the item but the period of history that it was from. Knowing when something was made, if and how it was altered, and the history of any repairs or damage can be incredibly helpful, and these are things that any antique owner should care about.

Provenance is usually something that gets attention with antiques that are truly valuable. Good provenance will leave you without questions, and without any concerns about whether you are buying something genuine or not.

Provenance is the difference between being told that a piece of pub furniture with reupholstery was used during World War II by Charles De Gaulle and the French as their base or knowing for definite that the claim is true. Nobody who is a serious buyer will just take your word for it if you tell such a story – you need to be able to show proof – photographs of her wearing it, the stamp on the jewellery that indicates it was made at roughly the right time for that. A note from someone who knew her that explains the ownership path of the item so it is clear how it fell into your hands. To convince a shrewd buyer you will need clear and unquestionable proof.

There are many forms of proof that can be used:

Certificate of Authenticity (COA)

A COA signed off on by a reputable, neutral party is the most common form of proof used for small items and for items where establishing provenance is simple, such as autographed memorabilia – someone saw the signing take place, and signed something themselves to indicate this is true.

Photos

Photographic evidence is useful if the item is recent enough that cameras were commonplace at the time that mattered. A photo or a video of someone standing next to an item, wearing it or using it, will back up a story. Sketches or paintings (if their validity is proven) can also be useful.

Stickers

Anything that is displayed in and sold by a large gallery is likely to have had a sticker on it noting the date and location of the exhibition, and the exhibition name. These stickers can serve as provenance.

Receipts

Receipts that show how the piece has changed hands can be helpful for showing the history of the piece – as long as you have kept the originals. Copies are not acceptable.

Notes

A letter or a note attached to the item can shed light on its history, but notes are easily forged so you may need to prove the provenance of the note as well as the provenance of the item.

Provenance should be clear and detailed. It should show who made the item, how old it is, and how it came to be in your hands. An item with good provenance will be very valuable, so it is important that you can show a lot about the item. Don’t be in a rush to buy an item if the seller cannot provide you with details of the item’s history, and original pieces of documentation. Copies are no good. Do not accept photographs or emailed versions of the documents. Demand to see the documents in person, and that when you buy the item, those original pieces of proof are transferred over to you along with the item that you are buying as the things that add to the provenance are just as important as the item itself.

Letters, photos, postcards, newspaper clippings and news reports can all be used as provenance – so don’t just ignore things that aren’t on this list. Do research items carefully before you hand over money to them though.

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