Provenance is a fancy word that refers to an object's history, or who owned the object, when and where. It is to an object what a deed trail is to a piece of land.
"Provenance is important because objects are almost never singular," says Michael Flanigan, a Baltimore dealer of antique American furniture. "Provenance separates the special, almost sacred objects of the past from the ordinary ones." Michael describes provenance as an object's "itinerary through time."
In other words, pens or pencils from the 1860s may be nearly a dime-a-dozen, but the one that Abraham Lincoln held in his hand while scribbling the rough draft of the "Gettysburg Address" is not.
In many fields of collecting, provenance is the name of the game. For example, provenance makes all the difference in military antiques and collectibles, Michael explains. A gun used by the French in the 19th century may have value, but one used to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo would be worth considerably more. If you can trace that gun into Napoleon's pocket, you have a treasure in hand. Provenance connected to the infamous a revolver traced back to Billy the Kid, for example can also boost an object's value exponentially.
"People want to know if something was touched by a great man or woman," says Michael. "People want some of the gilt from the past to rub off on them. That's why it matters so much." Provenance that leads back to not only the great names of the past but also to great collectors also has value. "Famous collectors burnish the objects they own," explains Michael, "so new collectors want to join that distinguished line."
In a clear-cut case, an object's trail of ownership may consist of a series of bills of sale. However, determining an object's provenance is not an exact science. Sometimes a photo can pair a person to an object, or there may be an oral or written history, such as an autobiography, that connects a person to a particular thing.
Michael adds, however, that provenance can be a shady business. "Provenance is something that is often proffered, but less often proved, because it's so difficult to pin down."
Religious antiques, for example, have often been given cachet by associating them with valued religious figures. "At one time in the Middle Ages, there were so many pieces of the true cross being passed off that you could've built an ark out of them," says Michael. "So provenance is something you should always take a second look at."