Monday, November 28, 2011

The Importance of Provenance

What is provenance? Anyone who has watched Antiques Roadshow or Time Team or even Pawn Stars has probably heard the show hosts, archaeologists, or appraisers discussing provenance and why it’s important or relevant to a particular piece.

Websters defines provenance as "1: origin, source," or "2: the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature."

That is straightforward enough if you’re dealing with artifacts found in situ at a dig or important works of art. In terms of collectibles though, provenance has also come to include the bits of ephemera associated with a piece, like sales receipts, photos, old ads, stickers, hang tags, original packaging, etc. For model horse collectors, provenance is often important in all of these senses---where a model was found, relevant hobby ownership, and documentation are often key.

Case Study #1: The Curious Incident of the 4-Socked Lady Phases

Lady Phase has been a collectors’ favorite since the mold was first sold in 1976. For the original release, she was sculpted and painted as a portrait of the real Quarter Horse mare owned by country singer Lynn Anderson. As with many Breyers, the sorrel mare with 3 white feet and a pale muzzle varied a bit during her nine years in production. Most Lady Phase models are reddish-chestnut, but some of the earlier pieces have a browner cast, and they occasionally shows up with two socks or four instead of the usual three.

With that in mind, one of the Lady Phases pictured below is a test run and one of them is an interesting variation. Can you tell which?

This is where provenance becomes important. These mares are pretty similar---they both have four socks and both fall within the range of sorrel coloring that is typical for Lady Phase models. Both mares were purchased on eBay. But one mare set me back nearly $400 (and that was more than 10 years ago before the vintage market really took off) and the other cost only $30 (and that was as part of a lot of 8 horses). Why the huge difference? Because the first mare is the original test run for the Lady Phase model from the collection of former Breyer designer and painter William Ciofani, and happily, I have the paper trail to back it up.

I purchased her from a well-known and well-respected hobbyist who dispersed the Ciofani collection, and I have saved my correspondence with the seller. Without it, my test run is just a neat mare with a somewhat unusual paintjob. She has four socks instead of three, and her nose has been fully painted grey instead of being left a mix of chestnut and bare plastic with a hint of darker color over the nostrils like so many Lady Phases. Her paintjob is neater and crisper than most other Lady Phase models as well which does set her apart, but the best defining characteristic, other than the documentation from the seller, is the little half moon of white on her forehead. It almost looks like a scrape rather than an intentional marking, but the real mare did have the same funny little occluded star.

Whether you collect to show or whether you collect just for the enjoyment it brings you, provenance is important. It can break a tie in the show ring, and it also preserves the history of a piece which can make all the difference in the sales ring.

Next time, more test runs and variations!