The word “provenance” is a late 18th century French word from the verb provenir meaning to come or stem from. The origin or beginning of something’s existence.
We often hear of the word provenance applied to art. As applied to automobiles provenance is a basically a fully detailed, substantiated, chronological history of a particular automobile. We research the car backward from the present back to its creation. One goal of vintage car provenance research should be to trace the ownership and location of a car from its creation to the present. Another research goal could be closing gaps in provenance.
Automobile provenance research creates a chronological history of a particular vintage car. Working backward I track all the transfers of ownership and possession, location, display, and restorations back to the creation of the car. Provenance research reveals ownership, prior status, condition and past restoration(s). Documentary sources such as a bills of sale, vehicle titles, a loan release, verifiable writings and documents from past owners, auction catalogs and books are all used.
The accuracy of any provenance search relies heavily on the skills of the researcher, the methodologies used and the accessibility of authoritative resources and materials.
Provenance is not static. Each year new materials come to light such as a previously unknown photograph collections with photos of the exact car you are researching. Research done well takes commitment, organization and resourcefulness.
Why is Provenance Important?
For Valuation: A complete ownership history adds value to a vintage car. A high quality car with a documented, proven unbroken chain of ownership and significant, proven history in major racing or other events will quickly surpass the value of a similar car that features more questions than answers.
For Authenticity: We establish the precise identity of the car. The authenticity and originality of a vintage car can only be proven through extensive research. Provenance alone does not prove authenticity. It is just one of three parts necessary for authentication. The other two are expert evidence and scientific analysis.
For Ownership: An established provenance can help document proof of ownership if legal title is ever contested. It is a well established rule of law that you cannot transfer title to property you never legally owned.
Provenance Research Standards
There are no currently recognized, published and accepted standards for vintage car provenance research that I am aware of. For some guidance I refer to the art world to see how provenance is established. I like the AAM Guide to Provenance Research. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2001 by Nancy Yeide. While the book is certainly about art and paintings in particular it still provides some inspiration for automobile provenance research.
Key Elements of Provenance Research:
• Establishing the precise identity of the car. Is this the car it is purported to be?
• A complete ownership history of the car.
• Documenting the specific events and activities in which the car participated.
• Establishing event participation with a well known driver or team.
- Establishing original configuration.
- Legal issues, does the car have a title? Was the car ever stolen? Was the car ever inherited? (This is important as some heirs skip the probate process and list a car for sale before they truly own it.)
Any significant, provable fact that distinguishes this car from all others. What makes this car unique?
Establishing the car’s provenance requires exhaustive research. A vintage car created by a living designer, existing coach builder or automobile company can be reasonably easy to prove authentic. A vintage car created by a long dead builder, designer or defunct carrozzeria is far more difficult.
Primary and secondary sources are used to develop provenance.
Primary research includes the personal memories of the driver, the owners, his/her family photographs, perhaps an interview with the mechanic that built or tuned the car, or even the craftsman who built the car. The key is the provenance information comes from the people who were there and part of the car’s history. Obviously primary research is the most relevant and that is where, if possible, I start.
Secondary research involves the review of published information. Secondary sources would include data found on the internet, period magazines, books, manufacturer’s records, club records, marque registries, vehicle registrations, museum data, period newspapers, maybe even factory promotional movies. Invariably when researching vintage cars there will be gaps in the provenance. This does not necessarily mean the car has a problematic past. The gap need not be prejudicial. There are many reasons for gaps in provenance, ranging from a past owner’s desire for anonymity to an absence of records of transactions.
Provenance, What it is…..and isn’t.
A simple list of owners and dates of ownership without substantiation is not necessarily provenance. If possible, obtaining the full names and contact information of previous owners is very compelling and useful versus just a list of past owners. I try to confirm that these people actually exist (or existed) and, whenever possible, speak directly with them or their descendants. A simple list of names names is not enough.
Copies of letters, certificates and other documents are not valid forms of provenance unless the originals can be accessed. Copies are one thing and may provide useful leads in research but original, hand signed, hand written documents are preferred whenever possible.
Provenance is fact, not supposition. Sometimes I have seen descriptions of a vintage car that state the car looks similar to other cars created by a certain coach builder. This is not provenance unless the statement was made by a recognized and respected authority on that particular manufacturer. Even then more information would be needed.
Seller statements about who owned the car or where it came from must be verified. Conditional or third party statements like “this car is believed to have been owned by…” or “the person I got it from told me…” or “the estate that this came from had lots of important cars…” do not constitute valid provenance. I am also always concerned about the following phrases: “believed to be”, “thought to be”, “attributed to”, or “from the collection of”. My mind always races to: “Who believed it to be?” “Who thought is was”, Who did the attributing? What are their credentials? On what basis did they give their opinions?
It is worth repeating, provenance alone does not alone determine the authenticity of a vintage car. It is just one of three parts. The others are an expert or connoisseur’s assessment and scientific testing.
The Expert’s Opinion.
No matter the make or model or how obscure there is always some one I call the “keeper of the flame” that knows a particular marque inside out. They may have built the car or designed the car when new or they may have written books about them or have researched them in extraordinary detail. They are the true expert or connoisseur, their knowledge is unbounded and often unchallenged. Their opinion matters and is based on facts. These experts are essential to establish authenticity. An expert’s opinion along with provenance research and testing all combine to establish authenticity.
Scientific Testing, The Third Step of the Authentication Process
In April of 2016 my Bar Association here in New Hampshire sponsored a continuing education program on forensics. One section concerned the altercation of serial numbers on guns. That same gun serial number forensic information had direct application to altered, concealed and obliterated vehicle identification numbers. I hired a firearms serial number specialist to examine a 1947 vintage car and look for long lost serial numbers on the frame. The numbers were found, made readable and substantiated the owner’s claim that his car was indeed authentic. I have also used metallurgical testing when necessary.
Provenance research takes time, patience and a certain gestalt to complete. It is not for the faint of heart as there can be surprises. Most of the cars I research are exactly what they are presented to be.
I am Jeff Murray. I am a member of the New Hampshire Bar Association. My company is Vintage Car Research LLC. My work has taken me all over Europe and the United States. I conduct due diligence research.
The path from hobby to business is well trodden. It started with a hobby. Since the 1960s I have accumulated a personal library of resources that exceeds 4000 books and magazines. My business contact resources number over 3000 entries. At every vintage car show I went to starting in the 1970s whenever possible I took photos. Detailed photos of VIN numbers and other identifiers. I have thousands of color and black and white photos all neatly cataloged for reference. Provenance research is my passion.
Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking legal representation.
When doing your own research it is easy to get stuck, to reach a wall you just can’t get past. Sometimes stepping back for a while then returning with new ideas and energy breaks the impasse. Other times consulting with someone who does provenance research for a living can make a difference. If you get well and truly stuck with a provenance research project consider contacting me. I just may be able to point you in the right direction and provide the resource you need. There will be no charge.