One often hears the word provenance in context of the the fine art world, such as with the sale of a Rembrandt or Renoir painting, while the topic is often idly dismissed or ignored by sports memorabilia collectors. However, provenance should also be an important consideration for collectors of sports collectables, memorabilia and even trading cards. This column is a look at the significance and various aspects of provenance, and why you should keep it mind as you collect.
What is provenance?
Provenance most often refers to the history of ownership of an item, and is documented by receipts, letters from owners and similar records. In the case of some famous paintings, the ownership can be traced back for centuries. In a broader sense, provenance includes other documentation of an item's history.
If a piece of memorabilia appears in an old auction catalog, is pictured in a magazine article or was shown in a public exhibit, that's documentation of its history. If you find a Getty photo showing football player wearing the exact same jersey you bought at auction, that's a document of its history. If you buy a game used baseball bat from a Major League Baseball online auction and keep the receipt or print out the online sales description page, that's provenance documentation.
Provenance can help establish identity and support authenticity
While provenance does not in and of itself prove authenticity, it can be useful evidence towards identifying and authenticating an item. Clearly, a letter of provenance from a player's estate or team helps establish the authenticity of a game used item. A MLB.com 'in person' hologram on a signed baseball is strong evidence the signature is genuine. The auction catalog or sales receipt from a sale by a reputable auction house both establishes the sales history and documents that a reputable source thought it authentic. Even simple documentation showing that an item has been around for decades, such as an old newspaper clipping, rules it out as a recently made fake.
Provenance can help identify important facts. If research shows a photograph came from the Babe Ruth's estate, this will help identify the photo as belonging to Ruth. The Ruth ownership is part of the photo's identity and value. Heck, a toothpick documented as having belonged to Ruth will sell for a few bucks on eBay.
Provenance isn't infallible, is limited in what it says, and authentication requires looking at both the item itself and the provenance, not just the provenance. That a baseball bat came from Lou Gehrig's estate does't itself prove that it was was used by him in a game. That a baseball card belonged to Sandy Koufax doesn't prove that the card is original. Koufax can own reprints just as anyone can. Sometimes a player's letter of authenticity for a personal item gets details wrong. Players' memories can be fuzzy and they can misidentify items, forget dates and places.
Provenance can be forged and that is often revealed when examining the item. For every forged Babe Ruth or Elvis Presley autograph on eBay, there is a made up story of how it was originally obtained. It is a running joke amongst vintage baseball card collectors how many modern computer counterfeits on eBay were “found in my grandmother's cabinet” Again, authentication involves looking at all aspects of the item, not just a LOA or the seller's interesting story.
Good provenance can enhance value
Solid documentation of history, a letter of authenticity from a team or estate, a sales receipt from a well known gallery, dealer or auction house will make future buyers more confident in the item and willing to spend more. Even when authenticity is not the issue, documentation proving ownership by someone famous or otherwise noted, having been exhibited at a gallery or museum, or appearing in a magazine or newspaper article will also add to the desirability. Buyers like that stuff.
Collectors will pay more for a 1985 New York Yankees team photo that hung at Yankee Stadium, as opposed to one that belonged to Joe Schmoe. Some collectors find the history of an item interesting in and of itself and will pay more where more details are known. Beyond helping authenticate a game used bat, a photo showing a player holding the same bat is great for display.
A collector can create his own good provenance by buying from reputable sellers. If you purchase an autograph or rare piece of memorabilia from a well known and respected seller, when you turn to sell you can show it was purchased from a well known and respected seller. Many game used collectors go through photos and film, trying to find photo matches of their equipment. Many collectors and dealers say a photo match is more valuable than a letter of authenticity.
Prominent autograph expert Jim Stinson says, “Always keep the bill of sale. As a long time buyer of vintage autographs I never ask to see a 'letter of opinion.' But I will often ask to see a bill of sale. Not to see what the item sold for but to track provenance. Even in cases where the seller is long ago deceased. A bill of sale from a reputable dealer is a solid resource.”
Provenance can identify fakes, forgeries and alterations
In instances, the documented past of an item has shown that items in auction are fake or altered. The following are just a few examples:
A major auction house auctioned a 'genuine 1920s Cleveland Indians Pro Model hat.' Looking at the auction catalog a collector recognized the hat, because he had once owned it. He had bought it as part of a complete uniform, glove and bat from the estate of a small town player who's baseball team wore caps identical in style to the Indians. This provenance showed that the auction description was false. It was a nice vintage cap, just not a Cleveland Indians cap.
An auction house auctioned a rare and valuable 1800s century cabinet card photograph of a Hall of Fame baseball player. A collector recognized the cabinet card from a previous sale, and the previous sale's photos showed that, since that sale, the cabinet card had been extensively restored. The problem was the auction house made no mention of the restoration.
An online dealer auctioned several rare early 1900s baseball lithographs. An earlier auction catalog showed that they had recently been cut from a large uncut sheet. The dealer made no mention of the recent alterations.
When someone is offering a Gem Mint antique baseball card with perfect razor sharp edges, have you ever considered asking where it was acquired? If the seller himself trimmed the card, he won't be able to provide documentation that it existed in that condition before he owned it. Clearly, there won't be solid documentation for many cards-- cards are discovered in books, bought as part of group lots, a sales receipt may make no mention of grade--but provenance of high grade cards should be something to keep in the back of your mind.
“Authentic autographs have a history or source … forgeries do not," Stinston states. "They just 'appear'.”
Researching the history doesn't always find bad news. A collector bought a bronze medal that was advertised as having been owned by baseball great Jackie Robinson. The embossed text on the medal showed it came from an obscure small town Wisconsin medical organization, and the diligent collector wrote to them. After checking their files, the organization wrote back that not only did they have record that the medal was given to Robinson after he gave a speech to the group, but their letter included a photo showing Robinson receiving that very medal. This provenance not only proved the medal authentic but probably doubled the value.
In the high end art world, a legitimate concern is the sale of stolen art. This is a worry because there is much Nazi looted art around and because valuable art has been stolen for museums, galleries and homes. Some European countries require provenance documentation before a high end artwork can even be sold, and many buyers want ownership history to establish that an item isn't stolen.
Stolen items aren't only part of the European art wold. Important baseballs, sports autographs and photographs sold by major auction houses have turned out later been stolen from the Hall of Fame and New York Public Library.
Realize that if you buy a stolen item, you don't own it. The sale wasn't legal and you may have to return it. The very least you want to do is to get a sales receipt at purchase so you can get your money back from that seller. The receipt is for your protection, and if you lose it or never got one you may be out of luck if the item turns out to be stolen.
To protect their history, some countries have passed laws to prevent the export of certain artifacts, usually antiquities. Egypt passed a law in 1983 and China passed a similar law in 2009. Certain classes of items exported past the respective country's date are considered stolen and the seller could get into legal trouble. However, if the artifact owner has documentation showing the item was obtained before the date, it is legal to own and sell. China also places red stickers on old items that are legal for export. The sticker doesn't authenticate the item, but demonstrates that the item is legal to own and resell.
On PBS's Antiques Roadshow, someone brought in a valuable ancient Egyptian figure. A sticker on the bottom showed that not only had it once been purchased from a well known and respected old time dealer of Egyptian antiquities, but that it was purchased before 1983 and was legal to own and resell. Good news for the guy who brought it to the show.
There will someday be a situation where a potential buyer wants proof that you own an item, or even accuses you of selling stolen items. You'll be glad if you kept your receipt.
Collectibles as historical artifacts
Vintage memorabilia and collectibles are historical artifacts and collectors, in their way, are historians. Keeping records about an item is a good idea, if not for you, for posterity. The names and places for countless antique photos on eBay have been lost in time. Identities and sales histories may not enhance the financial value, but many collectors would like to know who are these people in the photos, or at least which state the photo was taken. A future book writer or historian may use that information.
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This column doesn't offer a set of cookie cutter rules about provenance, and doesn't say how much this or that letter will increase value. However, this column demonstrates that provenance and its significance should be something you keep in mind as you collect, whether it relates to identification, stolen items or history.