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Provenance as a value element

Finding public and private documents

Finding obscure, but essential, documents usually requires the assistance of museum staff or other people with a professional relationship to the object or person being researched.
Finding obscure, but essential, documents usually requires the assistance of museum staff or other people with a professional relationship to the object or person being researched.

In my previous study of Paulding Farnham’s life, I recalled that during the late 1890s and extending into the early part of the 20th century, he was enthralled with mining in the western United States and Canada. During my previous assignment involving Farnham, I’d come across the Sally James Farnham Catalogue Raisonné Project, so I contacted the curator. He most graciously sent some family photos of Sally on horseback at the couple’s ranch in British Columbia. I began pouring through local newspaper archives, along with census, business, and mine records from the turn of the century. After many hours and many dead ends, I finally struck pay dirt!

I found occasional references to the Ptarmigan Mine and mining records indicating partial ownership by “a Mr. P. Farnham of New York.” Aha! The bird was a ptarmigan and the map co-ordinates for the mine matched those on the vessel. I also located an article in the Oct. 30, 1902 edition of the Victoria Daily Colonist archives announcing the naming of several peaks in the Selkirk range, including one Mount Farnham. The article states “”¦ known by several names among the prospectors, is now to be known as Mount Farnham in honour of Paulding Farnham of New York, promoter of the Ptarmigan Mines of the Selkirks”¦ Mr. Farnham’s property lies at the base of this mountain, and it is indeed well-named, for Mr. Farnham has greatly contributed to the development of the mines in this district.” Interestingly, his ‘contributions’ ended up costing him his fortune and his marriage, but that’s another story.

This handwritten document—and the previous list provided by the Sally Farnham Catalogue Raisonné Project—were convincing evidence attributing the vessel to Paulding Farnham that would never have been found without the efforts of research professionals. When research fees are part of the scope of work, be sure the client understands their value, as well as their cost.
This handwritten document—and the previous list provided by the Sally Farnham Catalogue Raisonné Project—were convincing evidence attributing the vessel to Paulding Farnham that would never have been found without the efforts of research professionals. When research fees are part of the scope of work, be sure the client understands their value, as well as their cost.

Armed with this information, I located the Ptarmigan Mine’s production records and found it primarily produced copper and silver, with very minor recovery of gold. When I estimated the percentages of those three metals in the vessel, it appeared to match the ratio of copper, silver, and gold during the mine’s peak output in 1902. This correlation was later confirmed by documents that surfaced several years after my appraisal was delivered. At that point in the research, I had circumstantial evidence that linked Paulding Farnham, the map co-ordinates, the bird on the rim, the provincial seal, and possibly the composition of the vase, but was there more?

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Again, I contacted the Sally James Farnham Catalogue Raisonné Project and after a diligent search, the curator located two documents. One was a handwritten inventory by Sally Farnham prepared when she moved to a new apartment in New York that listed among the studio contents an item simply described as “Ptarmigan vase”“silver, gold, copper.” This established ownership. The second document was key; it was Sally’s list of personal items and how they were to be distributed to the children. It provided a description and name of the artist for numerous pieces and included the entry “Ptarmigan Vase (Paul Farnham).”

Based on my now ‘considered’ opinion of attribution, I was able to conduct market analysis to arrive at the requested valuation for my client, after which, I assisted him in placing it in the right auction environment. As a magnificent, if quirky, turn-of-the-century Mokume-gane vessel, the piece might have brought $20,000 to $30,000 US in an active auction. Based on attribution to Paulding Farnham and the historical importance of the piece, it was sold at auction for more than $650,000 US.

Due diligence and consent

I hope this example provides readers with an idea of the depth of research that can become part of the scope of work when it is warranted by the potential difference in value. Anytime it becomes clear that providing credible results will involve significant research, it’s important to consult with the client and obtain their permission to expand the process and add billable hours.

Any readers wishing to see the Ptarmigan Vase in person may do so at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Mark CartwrightMark T. Cartwright is an accredited senior appraiser, master gemmologist appraiser (American Society of Appraisers), independent certified gemmologist appraiser (American Gem Society), and GIA graduate gemmologist, who has provided gemmological and jewellery appraisal services since 1983. He can be contacted via e-mail at gemlab@cox-internet.com.

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