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Provenance as a value element

By Mark T. Cartwright

Americana - lot 114 Ptarmigan Vase
Provenance—as defined as the association of an item to a renowned designer, maker, or even a famous owner—can have a significant influence on value”¦ sometimes. Whenever it exists, it represents an extrinsic property that should be considered in the valuation process; however, before it becomes part of the equation, it needs to be corroborated beyond a reasonable doubt.

With a ‘signed’ piece, it is a matter of verifying the signature isn’t a forgery and its details are consistent with the designer/maker. In some cases, it may be necessary to contact the artist directly because only they can state claims of authenticity as a matter of ‘fact.’ As appraisers, we can only provide an opinion of authenticity; for that opinion to be credible, we need supporting evidence. However, when working with items that aren’t signed, or which are simply claimed as having once belonged to a famous individual, the process of gathering sufficient evidence can become much more difficult and time consuming.

Unlike an intrinsic detail, such as a gemstone’s carat weight that can be proven simply by observation, provenance is an extrinsic value element that can only be shown to exist by documentation. Whenever we consider provenance in our valuation, we should also provide the evidence upon which we base our opinion. I’ll use an example from one of my assignments to help illustrate the extent of research that may be necessary when trying to find enough support for attribution as a value element.

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