The Oxford Dictionary defines provenance as the record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality. In practise provenance reflects the role that ownership has to play in the value we attribute to an item, the more illustrious the owner, and the more closely associated that item is with their personality and interests, the more collectors are prepared to pay.
Take Sotheby’s sale 2 March 2016, 496 lots from the personal collection of Debo, last of the legendary Mitford sisters, Duchess of Devonshire and chatelaine of Chatsworth. Sotheby’s estimated sale value was £500-700,000 but on the day it realised £1,777,838. That’s quite a lot of provenance.
But then Debo was quite the lady. A bastion of British society* that slid irrevocably into the past with her death giving talismanic status both to her closely-chronicled life and by association her personal effects, the only tangible connection to an aristocrat at the heart of the twentieth century elite, charming, upstanding and stylishly assured in her taste …Debo lives on through provenance.
Debo’s life was a quintessentially English life, ending in the chicest of Granny vicarage’s complete with her Elvis collection, a silver powder room and countless chickens. Aspects of this were lavishly recreated by Sotheby’s.
So when I passed by their Bond Street window (tantalisingly the day before viewing), I gazed transfixed into her country kitchen and pondered her cosy writing desk both seemingly still ready for their mistress and a pot of tea, oh…please wait for me.
In reality it can’t have been a large amount of her estate, children, grand-children and great-grand children must have all wanted personal mementoes and treasured family pieces. But what was on sale inevitably reflected her fabled family, her imaginative eye for character and charm and her life-long love affair with the English countryside and its animals which are of course hall marks of aristocratic English style.
Sotheby’s tagged the sale The Last of the Mitfords.
So clearly this line up of the sisters was going to take some bidding. All the Mitfords have provenance and en masse that was multiplied.
Who knew Nancy painted? and this scene from the window of their childhood house immortalised as Alconleigh in The Pursuit of Love proves the power of both her pen, her brush and of course provenance. The Christmas before its publication Evelyn Waugh sent 50 copies of Brideshead Revisited to friends, Debo’s copy was one of only 12 with an added personal note. Brideshead became the 20th century classic of the aristocracy, their great houses, and their place in the English landscape and English scheme of things. Whilst Debo was a champion of one of England’s great houses, a pioneer in making Chatsworth viable and beloved in the modern age. Thus the provenance of this edition reflects and magnifies the novel’s themes multiplying its value.
Personally I was rather keen on Debo’s fun jewels, and what better place to keep them than a red lacquer butterfly jewel case… and clearly someone else agreed. SOLD.
You could say it was cupid’s dart.
Or a wise owl.
Or someone got the curio BUG.
Debo had a great line in brooches, which was partly her generation, and partly her eclectic eye. You want to wear them ‘massed’ in my view to be modern.
Yes really! a lobster inkstand brilliant for cheering up correspondence or blank paper-itis .
I like that Debo collected owls too.
Naturally her daughters delicate watercolours which capture the charm of wild flowers and herbaceous borders also SOLD very well, double provenance.
It’s interesting how well the books did, I think this is because they so accurately reflect a person’s interests and tastes. Whilst the timeless nostalgia of children’s books gave this selection heirloom appeal.
Add a Kennedy connection, double-provenance.
Lettice ware was a surprise winner at Brooke Astor’s New York sale, so it should come as no surprise how well the green leaf did here.
The english love affair with animals may be well documented but Debo’s provenance transforms their value and as for Debo’s love affairs with chickens….
Champion breeder, she fed hers every day from an Elvis mug, part of her collection of Presley ephemera…to which the title’her grace’s’ adds provenance.
Provenance is the single most powerful factor in raising an item’s value, the intangible allure of owning something which belonged to a celebrated beauty/icon/aristo/conossieur becomes extremely tangible at auction. It’s importance has only increased in our media obsessed celebrity age, it adds a gilded quality, acquiring talismanic powers way beyond an item’s intrinsic value. So watch out … for provenance.
Credits and Notes:
images of Deborah Devonshire, please see pinterest, ‘Mitford and More‘.
All other images and videos Sotheby’s.
…of the aristocracy, their great houses, and their place in the English landscape and English scheme of things… quote from A.N. Wilson.
society* : the term used to describe the highest echelon of British aristocracy in early 20th century Britain.