The value of a good story

by David Buchanan, Curator of Decorative Objects and Furniture

I recently read an article written by Don Johnson for the March 26 issue of Antique Week titled “Medallion’s provenance is its greatest value.” It told the story of a coin-sized Nazi Zaum Winterhilfswerk medallion picked up by Clyde Kirkpatrick, a veteran of many of the bigger battles of World War II. He tells how he acquired the 1938 medallion and his experiences in keeping it while a prisoner of war.

As the Kirkpatrick story points out, the Nazi medallion itself has little intrinsic worth. It is the background story that provides the sense of value. It’s that story that would be told if the piece went to a museum. But I also believe if the medallion is ever offered at sale, that story would also raise its monetary value over the hundreds of other similar medallions already for sale.

Quite often I’ll see objects I believe could be useful to the museum collection, especially in auctions and antique malls. More often than not, when I ask the auctioneer or mall owner about the history of the piece, they reply they don’t know of any. No one made any effort to keep its history. Its story has been reset to zero.

Curators are not concerned with anything more than historical value when it comes to acquisitions but, speaking to all who are primarily interested in objects based on monetary value, I do believe that monetary value can be greatly enhanced by the same type of provenance needed for historical value.

Have you seen this painting of a young Charles Lanier? Possibly titled "Boy with Stick and Dog."

How often have you seen a painting in an auction titled something like “Boy with stick and dog”? That title describes a painting of a young Charles Lanier that we would like for our collection. It’s a painting whose whereabouts is currently unknown. (We have a photograph of it so we know it existed.) If ever offered with that title it is unlikely we would ever learn of it being offered for sale. But if someone had ensured the painting’s provenance was included, even if it was just the name “Charles Lanier” written on the stretcher, then given modern technology we, along other’s interested in the Lanier family, would learn of it. That interest ensures both its historical and monetary value has increased.

With provenance, even for something mass-produced like Mr. Kirkpatrick’s medallion, a good history kept with the object will help value(s) with each passing year. Bottom line, I believe if one is thinking about ways to enhance the worth of an estate, or even just trying to sell something, one should consider its unique provenance. If it has a fascinating story; if it’s associated with a well-known family; if it can be tied to an important event, or even if it’s just some everyday family history, document it. Auctioneers and antique dealers will be better off. Even better, that provenance will have curators all over the world absolutely thrilled — from an historical value point of view of course!

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