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Why Provenance is Such an Important Part of Buying Antique Items

By: Kim Carpenter

For someone new to the world of antiques, provenance can be a hard concept to get your head around. Provenance is what sets apart items, it is the thing that you will want to learn about so that you can be confident that what you're buying is authentic and that it is actually worth buying. The provenance of an item is the story behind who made it, where it came from, and how it fell into the hands of the seller. Having documents, photographic evidence and notes or receipts that trace that trail will bring that item to life.

Provenance tells the story of the manufacture, ownership, damage and repair of an item. It highlights anything interesting such as a famous maker, or use in an important event, or being owned or worn by a well-known person. While some items are of interest and value just because they are old, a table that a famous poet used to compose his works would be of more interest than a table from a similar era that sat in a rich, but relatively unknown, landowners house. That's how provenance adds value to an item.


Check the Evidence


Just knowing the provenance of an item is not enough. Indeed, you might think you know the provenance of some antiques that you already own - but if you haven't actually seen proof of that, then how can you be sure? No experienced antique buyer would accept someone's word that an item had the history they claimed - it is important to check and verify every claim, and to do your best to preserve the evidence alongside the item.

There are many forms of provenance, including:

A Certificate of Authenticity (COA)


A COA is something  that is seen a lot for autographs, postcards, small works of art, and pieces of memorabilia from relatively recent events.


Photo or Video


Again, with more recent events it is possible to get photos or videos that show the provenance of an item. For things that were made and used before cameras were commonplace, paintings or sketches can sometimes suggest provenance, but all of these things are easily faked, so be wary.

Stickers or Labels


Often, art that comes from a gallery will have a sticker or label on it that shows the exhibition it came from and the date. This can be useful for explaining how a work of art came into your hands.
 

Original Receipts


If you are lucky, you might find an original receipt in a desk drawer or in the jacket of a book, and this will help you to prove the date of it and where it came from. Keep the originals to show, because copies will not do.


Letters


A hand-written letter can be a useful form of provenance, especially if the note is signed and it is from an interesting person such as the artist, writer or maker. Letters between a buyer and a recipient of a gift are useful too.

Provenance should be detailed, verifiable when this is feasibly possible, and should be in the form of original records. Dates, signatures, and contact details should be examined. Do not take anything at face value. Be aware that an item with provenance is usually so much more valuable than the same item without, so do not purchase an item without checking it. It is important that you follow up on contact details, and accept only original items.

There are people who fake notes, photos and receipts to fool unwitting buyers, and sometimes those buyers go on to be well-meaning sellers. You can do your part to keep history accurate and to stop fraud by being studious when buying items, and by paying close attention to the details. There are plenty of real, exciting antiques out there waiting for buyers, so there is no need to make up history where there is none. Let the real stories be told, and you will discover that history is exciting enough that we don't need fiction. If you're not sure about what you're buying, ask an expert to look at it for you and give you an impartial third party assessment.


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