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Provenance and The Private Library

In detective fiction and on the cop shows it's called "chain of evidence." Book collectors call it provenance. Unless you plan to build your private library solely with "hot off the press" titles, you need to understand provenance. The concept is important for all kinds of collectibles, from works of art to books to archaeological artifacts. Basically, it means: "to confirm or gather evidence as to the time, place, and if appropriate, the person responsible, for the creation, production or discovery of [an] object."
Published on 26 Sept. 2018
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By L.D. Mitchell


In detective fiction and on the cop shows it's called "chain of evidence." Book collectors call it provenance.

Unless you plan to build your private library solely with "hot off the press" titles, you need to understand provenance. The concept is important for all kinds of collectibles, from works of art to books to archaeological artifacts. Basically, it means: "to confirm or gather evidence as to the time, place, and if appropriate, the person responsible, for the creation, production or discovery of [an] object."

It's most common use in book collecting is to determine who previously owned the book(s) that you want to buy. For rare titles, this can help you avoid acquiring forgeries, facsimiles or titles that have been stolen.

Provenance can make a huge difference in the price you pay for a book. The certainty of a title's provenance, the status of a past owner or owners as major book collectors themselves, and physical evidence that a title has not been tampered with (by, for example, replacing a title page in facsimile), all bear on what a particular title will command in the marketplace.

Provenance can be established in a variety of ways: original purchase documentation; a catalog of a particular collection that indicates a particular title was in that collection at a particular time; bookplates (though these can easily be forged); inscriptions or other marginalia in the book itself.

Here's an example of how provenance can be used to assess the authenticity and marketplace value of a particular title:

Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States and one of the great tragic figures of the 20th century, wrote a number of books after his resignation in 1974. In none of these did he cover the topic of Watergate in anything approaching a full and honest fashion. He came closest, arguably, in his book In the Arena.

In 1969, Nixon had appointed Warren Burger as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. If Nixon thought this would serve him well during the Watergate scandal, he was wrong. Burger spoke for a unanimous court in ordering Nixon to turn over the White House tapes that ultimately would prove to be Nixon's undoing.

In his efforts to restore his reputation after Watergate, Nixon often sent inscribed copies of his various books to important figures in American life. One recipient of these various titles was, ironically, Warren Burger. After Burger's death, a number of these titles left his estate and entered the marketplace. The title on the right is In the Arena, and features both Nixon's inscription to Burger and a note from Burger's assistant:

The inscription reads: "To Warren Burger-a great Chief Justice[,] a great American[,] a great friend-with warm regards from Dick Nixon 4-10-90[.]"

The note from Burger's assistant reads: "A thank you letter to President Nixon for this book has already been typed and is on your chair awaiting your signature. Thank you-Jill 4/16/90[.]"

Generally speaking, one has to be very careful of books purporting to contain presidential signatures. In the 20th century, most such signatures were generated by autopen.

This is where provenance comes in: the bookseller selling the book can document that the book was acquired directly from the Burger estate; the signature matches known Nixon signatures (of particular importance is the usage of "Dick" - Nixon almost never signed personal inscriptions as "Richard"); Burger's staff at the time can easily be authenticated; and so forth.

In short, provenance authenticates your purchase. And because the above title also is an association copy (the subject of tomorrow's post), it has a big impact on how the marketplace values your title....

For many years L.D. Mitchell's blog The Private Library showed collectors that it is possible to build a collection without the benefit of much money. He published numerous articles on every imaginable subject of book collecting, he wrote about the most beautiful, the most important, the most common, the most attractive, the most unusual, the most interesting, the most extraordinary, the most amazing ... books one could read, buy, collect and simply enjoy. The Private Library has become an irreplaceable resource for all booklovers. Since April 2012, it is a static archive. L. D. Mitchell will no longer post new original content. ILAB is very grateful that he has given permission to publish some of his best articles and collecting tips from The Private Library on the ILAB website. Thank you very much, L.D.

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