A letter floated in to the galleries the other day from another dealer, who by way of representing the quality of her inventory, cited its ‘provenance’. Within the context of the letter, it appeared that she didn’t really understand the meaning of the word. But then it occurred to me that this term, so often used in the trade, and on ‘Antiques Roadshow’, is probably not completely understood. Perhaps, then, a brief discussion and the implications when applied to a piece of furniture might be of some use to all ten of my readers.
As a working definition, ‘provenance’ simply means who owned the piece before. Clearly, with a number of pieces in our inventory as much as 300 years old, everything has been owned by very many people before, but we don’t often cite provenance. Mostly, the prior ownership is either unknown or insufficiently significant to be worth noting. When provenance is cited, it is for several different reasons. Firstly, provenance when it can assist in attributing the piece to a known workshop. In the 18th century heyday of stately homebuilding in England, Thomas Chippendale, Mayhew and Ince, Thomas Cobb, William Vile, and a number of prominent craftsmen completed vast suites of movables to furnish these massive new piles. Chances are, if the piece has remained in the home and with the family for whom it was originally commissioned, the original invoice, prepared and issued by Chippendale or the like, survives. With English furniture in particular, rarely labelled or marked by its maker, provenance often plays a critial role in attribution.
More recent provenance, absent knowing its original owner, might not be helpful in attribution, but can argue for the quality of the piece. For instance, a mid 18th century serving table in our inventory was part of a collection assembled in the early part of the 20th century by the furniture historian R.W.Symonds, one of the leading intellectual lights in the English furniture field. We always include this when citing the piece’s provenance. Although of a Chippendale design in the Chinese taste, it is unlikely that Symonds chose this piece for that reason. Rather, it is more likely that the selection was based on timber quality and color, and the fact that the blind fret carving to the legs and the frieze is original. Since very many pieces of this basic design were ‘enhanced’ by recarving in the Chippendale revival period of the late 19th century, original carving was, and still is, an extremely desirable feature.
Finally, provenance can sometimes be a value-added feature on its own, regardless of the quality of the piece, if the prior owner was or is a person of particular celebrity. Immediately I think of the collection of the late Bill Blass, auctioned off at Sotheby’s a few years ago. Some of the Regency furniture was of excellent quality, some was not, but everything sold for a lot of money. Interestingly, although very much a factor in the trade in America in the early part of the last century, aristocratic provenance seems lately to be more of a selling feature in Europe. Although nearly all European countries are long since republics, presumably buyers there still encounter enough aristos wandering around that it makes the notion of aristocratic provenance more meaningful.