The Value of Art | Provenance

Sometimes the story of an object’s ownership can be more interesting than the object itself. Every day, Sotheby’s specialists uncover lines of ownership that can multiply a piece’s intrinsic value severalfold. Because of their provenance, a Modern painting that once hung in Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s living room and a Boulle commode handed down through generations of a French noble family are worth far more than near-equivalent pieces without a notable history. “Provenance is my favorite part,” says Frank Everett, senior vice president and sales Director for Sotheby’s Jewellery department in New York. “It’s the history of a piece – who’s owned it and who wore it? When did she wear it? How often did she wear it? For me, this is what we live for – to tell the great stories.”

Persons Involved
“Jewellery is so personal because it’s worn on the body: it’s a true reflection of a woman’s style and often marks life’s special occasions. Many of the jewels from the great ladies are collaborations . I don’t know of any patrons who worked with Rothko on a painting, but I can tell you about a lot of women who collaborated with great jewellery house on a one-of-a-kind piece.”

Lines Followed
“You can have provenance in reference to an iconic design or a design house, and then you can have provenance in reference to the owner. Take Duchess of Windsor – the most fashionable woman and a great collector of jewels – everyone wanted a piece that belonged to her. So when her collection sold at Sotheby’s in 1987, it brought the highest total of any jewellery auction ever.”

Records Kept
“The top jewellery houses keep meticulous records. We will frequently go to them for assistance in verifying the owner of certain pieces. The best-case scenario is when we find a picture of the woman wearing the jewel. When we can say that it was hers, and we also have a picture of her wearing it – that just ups the whole thing. That is the dream.”

Value Added
“Two years ago, we sold a wonderful 1940’s bracelet by Cartier – a gold-link chain with a chunky lapis clasp. Today, a jeweller could make something similar for maybe $5,000. But because it was 1940s Cartier, we were talking more like $20,000 or $25,000. And this piece belonged to Marlene Dietrich – that fact alone could put it between $50,000 and $75,000. But it gets better: it was a gift from her lover, writer Erich Maria Remarque, for her help getting him out of Europe. The Cartier and Dietrich names bumped up the value, and on top of that, add a great wartime love story and the bracelet ended up selling for $180,000. It was a perfect example of the value of provenance. “

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