Provenance: Trust But Verify


Over the past few years Garagistry has published several articles on the subject of "Provenance" and why it should matter to a Classic Car owner. We assumed Collector Car owners already knew the importance of Provenance - which may explain why they are Collectors in the first place.  

But recently we overheard during a local car show that the average Classic owners don't really understand or recognize the value associated with the provenance of their vehicle. Whether it is because owners know their classic hasn't been owned by a celebrity or didn't achieve some noteworthy achievement, we're not sure. But every classic car has some provenance that should be recorded.  

Looking beyond classic cars, we think we found a good relative example of what provenance means and its importance to the future.

"We’re supposed to trust it because the they said so! And that’s the problem. It gives us no other grounding for trust.”

In a June 2010 article by Jeff Jarvis, the issue of provenance arose concerning the accuracy and documentation in journalism was discussed. In summary, he continue to write:

Chicago Tribune - Got It Very Wrong...
"Provenance is becoming more important in many fields. Why? Because it’s possible. And because it’s possible, it becomes expected. A link (an embedded hyperlink) enables provenance: click here to see where I got my information. The web enables provenance: search here to find out where this came from. The link economy requires provenance: link to support journalism at its source. The link ethic demands provenance. Period."

Nixon Era Legacy - The Mysterious "Deep Throat" Was Real
As Jarvis went on to detail, provenance details and documents how facts are arrived at and how they are related. It documents one's work and sources used and enables the user to evaluate the quality of the information provided: is it fact or fiction... So responsibility is taken. I will trust what I read more if I know who says it; anonymity devalues trust - for one who hides behind it and for the other who takes the easy route through it.

But the new importance of provenance affects much more when it comes to products, we want to know:
  • who were prior owners 
  • what modifications might previous owners have made to the vehicle 
  • who made the modifications 
  • when were the modifications made
  • maintenance & service records
But provenance can also be a mark of higher value. When we know the ownership history of a classic - regardless of how many owners are recorded - we may pay more for the car knowing it has history that can be traced backward. At a time when fraud, cloned VIN numbers, rebodied cars or cars destroyed in storms appear in classified ads, buyers need to ask tough questions to protect their purchase.

Jarvis gave some relevant examples of where Provenance is becoming more important, for example: politics and government. "We want to know the source of a politician’s funding and the influences on them. We want to know who created an spending earmark so we may hold them accountable. Provenance has always been expected in the world of higher education, but now citations empowered by links have even greater value - not merely to give credit but to give students the opportunity to explore and learn on their own."

As his article on Provenance was primarily a discussion of validation of the source for the news we receive every day, he went on to state: "This is why editors at the Washington Post and everywhere else must learn that it’s no longer good enough to think that the buck can stop at them, that they can be the validators of trust, that we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about where their news comes from. This is why we, the readers, must get better at accepting and valuing the results of more openness and be proficient at judging sources for ourselves. Provenance is no longer merely the nicety of artists, academics, and wine makers. It is an ethic we expect."

Some may think this is a far cry from establishing the ownership history of a particular classic car, or what restorations and repairs have been made.  Far from it - this all relates back to being able to document what you claim and not force a future owner to trust alone...

Taken as a single word, "provenance" is too broad a term for it to possibly have one, universal definition. However, the most basic definition available refers to provenance as "the history of the ownership of an object, especially when documented or authenticated". A dictionary also uses the word "pedigree" to define the origin or history of something - but pedigree usually applies to the descendants of a person or a species of animal. It simply means "the recorded history of the ownership and experiences of a vehicle".

The history of ownership alone is just one piece of the total history of a vehicle. When fully explored, that same record of ownership could and should include the origin of a source (when, where, by whom / for whom it was made). Provenance is the documentation and description of how things (in our example, your classic vehicle) came to be, and how it came to be in the state it is in today. Essentially, we are talking about the roots and legacy of your classic!

When discussing the provenance (origin) of an object, such as a classic vehicle, it is important to know whether it is a primary source or a secondary source. A primary source is one written or created by someone who had personal experience of the events it refers to. A secondary source is one created by a third party who has used evidence from a variety of sources to draw conclusions about the history involved.

What Provenance Is Not

According to Vintage Car Research of NH, the following should be considered:

1. A simple list of past 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 evidence.

2. Copies of letters, certificates and other documents are not necessarily valid forms of provenance unless the originals can not be accessed.  Copies are one thing and provide useful leads but original, signed documents are preferred whenever possible.

3. Provenance is fact, not supposition. Just because a vehicle looks like another vehicle with specific attributes, does not necessarily mean the vehicles are related.

4.  Seller statements about who owned the vehicle or where it came from must be verified. Conditional or third party statements, such as "this car is believe d to have been owned by..." or "the person I got the car from told me..." do not constitute valid provenance.

5. Statements that a vehicle came from an significant collection does not necessarily constitute provenance.

6. And finally - conditional phrases such as "believed to be true", "attributed to", and "from the collection of", always set off alarm bells when provenance is being established.


For A Buyer:
Without a provenance check being done, you won’t know whether the vehicle comes with a hidden past. A provenance check (often referred to as a background check) is the only way to guarantee that the vehicle you are proposing to buy is exactly what you would expect it to be. Please remember for your own sake, if anything is flagged as unusual during a provenance check, DON’T BUY THE VEHICLE no matter how good a deal it seems.

For A Seller:
Without having established your vehicle's provenance, you may never receive the full value your vehicle's worth.  Provenance is not a secret, you should be proactive providing Buyers access to your documentation to confirm it's authenticity. Of course, having valuable, one-of-a-kind document readily available for the casual looker to examine is not recommended.  This is where it makes sense to have your originals securely stored while you use copies safely stored with Garagistry. The originals can always be provided to a prospective buyer when their interest is more than casual.

As has been said before - "An informed Buyer and Seller are not fooled..."

The Garagistry Team