Antiques and collectibles are inanimate objects that become animate when stories associated with them are known. Stories, memories and dreams add value. Stories include answers to questions such as who first bought the object; why was it bought; how was it used; who made it; how was it marketed; how long did it remain in use; why was it saved; what is its ownership history; and what does its possession say about the current owner. This column focuses on one specific question—who first owned the object?
As I look around at the thousands of objects in my collection, I realize that I am unable to answer this question for 99 percent of the objects that I own. The person or dealer from whom I purchased it is the only ownership provenance I know. It is a one-person deep provenance. Dealers are reluctant to identify sources. I never question a dealer about what motivated him/her to purchase the object for sale—clearly part of the object’s story. I make the purchase and move on to the next.
Even when asked, private sellers are unable to provide a genealogical history associated with the object they are selling. When doing a walk through appraisal of a home with the executor and/or heirs, I occasionally ask if they know the history of a piece. The standard response is a blank face and “I don’t have the vaguest idea.”
The situation is similar to visiting a cemetery containing the graves of hundreds or thousands of individuals. Every one of the departed has a life story to tell. The only available information is a name, birth and death date, a family relationship and a hint of military service if there is a plaque. Once the second-generation dies, the memories die as well. When the memories die, the stories die.
Since my genealogical research occurs in fits and starts, I do not classify myself as a genealogist. My primary goal is to trace my ancestors back to the country from which they emigrated. The primary information I seek is the name, full birth and death dates and locations, person(s) to whom the individual was married, marriage date(s) and names of siblings. This information is statistical. It tells me little to nothing about my ancestors. They are names, but they are faceless. My genealogical research would be far more meaningful if I took the time to research their lives, something I do hope to do before I join them in the eternal deep sleep.
More and more local historical societies are becoming involved in “From Beyond the Grave” history. Colonial Williamsburg offers a “History Comes Alive in the Graveyard” education program that allows participants to learn about Williamsburg’s history by “reading” gravestones. Although such an event can occur at any time, Halloween seems to be a popular time for graveyard tours. Individuals research the history of one of the deceased, dress up in the appropriate costume and share their findings with participants willing to pay for a graveyard tour.
On May 25, 2015, National Public Radio aired a story about students from Chuck Yarborough’s United States history class at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science getting ready for the Yarborough 25th “Tales From The Crypt” event at the Friendship Cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi. The text of the story entitled “Through Performance, Mississippi Students Honor Long-Forgotten Locals” is available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/04/17/400363343/through-performance-mississippi-students-honor-long-forgotten-locals.
B. J. Bueno, a member of the Citizens Stamp Advisory Board on which I also serve, and Scott Jeffrey write “The Cult Branding Blog” found on www.cultbranding.com. A recent blog entitled “The Power of the Story” provides insight on why story is a value added commodity. Bueno and Jeffry note: “Our brains, research continues to show, are wired to understand and retain stories, not facts and logic…good stories move people. Good stories take us on a journey, allowing us to feel differently. And these feelings can change our perspective, often leading us to take action.” It does not require genius to see the connection between stories and their ability to add value to an antique or collectible.
On May 17, 2015, I received an email from BJ Turner accompanied by three pictures. The email read: “Attached you will find a photo of a ww2 military knife. And a picture of my dad in uniform and cousin. My dad was in the 92nd division, 366th infantry. He served in Italy and North Africa. All locations including Serchio Valley are listed on his discharge paper. He was also shipped out to Manila. Date noted on holder of knife. Please tell me what I have.” The image of the father indicated he was African American.
My immediate reaction was to research the knife. Using John Adams-Graf’s “Warman’s World War II Collectibles, 3rd Edition” (KP/F+W Media, 2015), I scanned the pages dealing with American military knives. None of the illustrations matched the knife in the pictures that accompanied BJ Turner’s email. Having spoken with John Adams-Graf in the past and having his as a guest several times on Whatcha Got?, my nationally syndicated antiques and collectibles call-in radio show, I called to enlist his help in identifying the knife.
Within a half hour of our initial conversation, John emailed me the information I sought. The knife is a 2nd style, Office of Strategic Service Command (O.S.S.) smatchet made by W. R. Case and Sons Cutlery. According to Wikipedia.com, a smatchet is “a short, heavy fighting knife/sword 16/5 (42 cm) in overall length (including grip). It was designed by knife fighting expert and instructor Cap. William E. Fairbairn during World War II….Though described in the Office of Strategic Services catalogue as a cross between a machete and a bolo, it was actually based on the Royal Welch Fusiliers Trench Knife of World War I, and was designed as a pure combat knife….” John went on to note that “the 92nd Division was an all-black (enlisted men and most of its junior officers were black, the higher officers were white) unit that began combat training in October 1942 and went into action in the summer of 1944. A quick Internet search produced a wealth of information about the 92nd Division and its 366th infantry.
John valued the knife at $575.00 without a provenance. However, the provenance, in this case the first owner, is known. BJ Turner supplied me with the name of her father in a subsequent email. She also indicated that she has his Purple Heart in addition to his discharge papers. The photograph adds a face to the name. John’s value of the knife with the provenance of its first owner was “around $950.00.”
When doing appraisal clinics and talking about family value as an emotional and sentimental value, I often tell the audience “just because something belonged to your grandmother, it means dip to me.” I realize the comment is flippant. In my defense, I am thinking only in terms of a name and not a story. The story of the first owner does not have to be one associated with a famous historical personage. However, it does have to consist of more than a name. The name has to become a “living” person via the story.
The difficulty noted earlier is determining the name of the first person who owned an object. Objects, especially if they are mass-produced, do not have the first owner’s name attached. On the surface, the task of identifying the first owner appears impossible. This is a situation where if a person is frustrated by failure, he/she should not even start the research process. Failures aside, the self-satisfaction of a successful story is exhilarating.
As I narrow my collecting due to age and a host of other reasons, I find myself more and more attracted to those objects that offer the opportunity to determine who the first owner was. All I need is a clue or two.
While the value of knowing who the first owner of an object was is sufficient for me, I need to address the added monetary value inherent in the information. At a minimum, the story adds 10 percent. Additional value depends on the detail and color of the story associated with the first owner. An additional 50 percent for a properly researched and documented story is reasonable.
In conclusion, the story of the first owner is a critical link to the past. The emotional and monetary value of family heirlooms relies heavily on stories. These stories are memory rather than hard copy driven. When the memories are lost, the first owner story value is lost. As custodians of past objects, I encourage collectors and others to preserve or search out the story of the first owner so that future generations understand the “personal” link to the object they own.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.
You can listen and participate in Whatcha Got?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, Whatcha Got? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com. Copyright© Harry L. Rinker, LLC, 2015