Price of provenance: jewellery with a valuable story

A piece of jewellery with a unique and notable history can often be far more valuable than the brand.

Few factors escalate the value of a vintage watch like its once having adorned a bona fide celebrity. Consider owning a Rolex 5512 Submariner owned by Steve McQueen, or a Longines Evidenza worn by Humphrey Bogart on the set of Casablanca.

And who knew James Dean, was fond of vintage pocket watches?

Rebel with good taste

At Antiquorum's 'Important Modern & Vintage Timepieces' auction in Hong Kong, a pocket watch that once belonged to Dean created a flurry of attention, with its estimated price of around US$5000 (AU$7000) superseded more than eight times to reach around US$42,000 (AU$58,600), paid by a private phone bidder in Europe.

The keyless pocket watch was made by watchmaker Standard USA and features an American-made Elgin movement, and dates to around 1889. Dean, who bought the watch in 1951 in New York, is said to have considered it his good luck charm, even insisting to the chagrin of director Elia Kazan that it dangle from his belt loop (with an alternative cover to hide his initials he had engraved on it), during the shooting of East of Eden.

It is much more difficult to prove its journey from point of creation to the current time.

Christopher Becker

Dean eventually gifted the pocket watch to an industry friend, Tillie Starriet, and a letter by her accompanied the watch at the auction, along with the original box, chain, and lamp pendant.

Eerily, the non-functioning watch had been set to the time of Dean's death: 5:43pm; but Dean was actually wearing a Jaeger-LeCoultre Powermatic Nautilus the night of his fatal car crash at the age of 24.

Antiquorum has also handled watches owned by Gandhi, Albert Einstein and Elvis.

Burden of proof

Christopher Becker, director of Antiques-Art-Design, is a Sydney-based dealer specialising in Modernist Scandinavian silver jewellery, including Georg Jensen. Becker defines provenance as "'Whence something came': not necessarily who made it but who commissioned it and owned it. And not just its original owner, but its successive owners to the current date."


Strangely it is the more recent history of an item that can be the hardest to confirm. "Word of mouth, hearsay or family legend does not constitute provenance," explains Becker. "You can often ascertain, from the makers' marks, engraved inscriptions, patterns or records about the item, who made it and sometimes as a result, who it was intended for, but it is much more difficult to prove its journey from point of creation to the current time. With the word provenance comes the burden of proof."

Some auction houses assign provenance as lot numbers in auctions, and in doing so indicate the agent by whom it was sold, but it is not necessarily evident who owned it. Selling online has also limited exchanges regarding provenance and often an item's history is lost, especially when the people who might be able to shed light on an item are long gone. Even an expert like Becker may need to look back at archival photographs to research examples.

"Taking all of that into consideration, you can see how rare in itself provenance can be and the subsequent effects that it has on a piece's desirability and, ultimately, its price. "

Captains of industry

Sometimes a craftsman is as worthy of biographical attention as their clients. Take the case of Alexander Calder (1898-1976), one of America's greatest sculptors, whose oeuvre took in mobiles (for which he is best known), jewellery inspired by African art, toys, and brightly coloured prints.

A suite of very modern, hammered silver wire Calder pieces once in the possession of Nelson A. Rockefeller (former Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford), is currently offered by the influential New York fine jewellery dealer Siegelson. A curious inclusion is a silver cape clasp circa 1936. Coat clasps, more common at the turn of the 20th century, would be sewn onto a coat or cloak on either side, with the clasp in the middle.

Senator Rockefeller, the only son of the founder of the Standard Oil Company, once the largest oil refiner in the world, also served four terms as the Governor of New York. His interest in art was encouraged by his mother, Abigail, herself the driving force behind New York's Museum of Modern Art. He upheld the family's close ties with the Museum as a trustee, treasurer and its President.

It is certainly rare to find such a collection of Calder jewellery with that degree provenance, with the masculine appeal of Rockefeller's stature undeniable.

On the cusp of revolution

To stumble upon a gem from both a gilded period of history and a celebrated jeweller assures a collector is in good stead, especially if investment is the primary goal and they have a sizeable budget.

Serious buyers might consider a Fabergé Imperial presentation men's ring on sale by Romanov Russia for US$125,000 ($174,400).

The finely crafted heavy ring, in 14K gold with bluish gray guilloche enamel and brilliant and rose diamonds, was made in St. Petersburg by a Fabergé's workmaster called Vladimir Solovyov, who ran his own workshop producing jewellery to the famous house's designs. The item was given to its recipient by the Empress Maria Feodorovna (mother of Tsar Nicholas II) in 1915, as was the custom that saw Imperial presentation rings as awards or tokens of appreciation for one's services to the Tsarist family.

The ring is designed in Russian Modern style of the 1910s with a medieval Byzantine double-headed eagle to represent a ruler's authority over both secular and religious matters.

Enticing echoes of time

Cornering provenance can be an elusive task. Any documentation that supports a maker's mark is crucial and if it also reveals an item's purpose and their maker's career, surety builds.

Romanov Russia lists the Fabergé Imperial presentation men's ring as being joined by a copy of its original award certificate, which is signed by the head of the Cabinet Chamberlain of His Majesty's Court with an ink seal of the Cabinet of Empress Maria Feodorovna.

Or an item might come with documentation of registration of a work in the archives of an artist's or jewellery house's foundation, condition reports, photocopies and photographs of the identity wearing it, newspaper articles, or letters of authenticity from previous owners, relatives and academics.

However, time is not always so generous when it comes to supplying the unerring evidence of an item's life to the present day. If only that Art Deco watch you are contemplating could talk, it would be so much easier.

Sotheby's Australia's Important Jewels sale is on April 19, exhibiting in Sydney from the 15th.