Why is provenance so important?

29th May 2014 - 15:01

Antiques dealer George Johnson tells us why often the history of an object is as valuable as the object itself

I am an addict. There I've said it. I am addicted to the antiques trade. But what is it about the unpredictable day-to-day quest – never knowing what you might come across – that keeps me fixed?

It is the nuggets of social history and imagined stories that emerge and in today’s market more than ever, provenance is taking centre stage.

Take an amazing optician’s set made by Curry and Paxton Ltd that I recently acquired. I have had sets like this in the past but this one is the most complete that I have found. It came from a gentleman whose father was a working optician so, of course, the set was in daily use. Just think how many pairs of eyes have looked through it…

Medical pieces like this are enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to this burgeoning appreciation of history. Prices for optician’s sets can range from £100 to over £500 depending on condition and maker. And as well as being highly collectable, their sense of provenance has made them popular with decorators looking for something off-the-wall to dress a room.

That said, even less zany pieces can gain value from their back-stories. Recently an old lady brought two paintings on board into my shop (below). In all honesty I didn’t think much of them until she started to tell me their history.

These paintings were created by a prisoner of war held at Cultybraggan Camp, the camp near Comrie in Perthshire also called POW camp No 21. It was designated a ‘Black Camp’ because it housed the most committed and fanatical Nazis captured during the Second World War including members of the SS and enemy U-boat crews. The lady had grown up on a farm near the camp and her father had become friendly with some of the POWs when they were sent to work on his farm. The prisoners would swap trinkets they had for food.

The camp also played a role in the Devizes plot in which the Nazis planned to break out nearly a quarter of a million prisoners of war to attack Britain from behind the lines.  Luckily the plan was foiled but it is history like this that turns an ordinary object into a tangible route to the past.

Though it is always a joy to find something in great condition or by an important maker, next time you pick up an antique just think: what has this object seen in its life? You might find it takes on a whole other level of value you never expected…

George Johnson owns Lady Kentmores, 35 Main Street, Callander. He is a co-founder of the Young Guns of the Antiques Trade.

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