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Personal Provenance

By Daniel Hubbard | December 18, 2011

I’m taking a break from thinking about the nature of research this week to think about something else. Where do things get there value? Part of the value of something clearly comes from the value of the raw materials and the cost of the labor that went into making it. Part of the value of something also follows demand. Something cheap to produce can become expensive if more people want it and few examples exist.

Demand is driven by many things but attractiveness goes into the equation. A beautiful object will be more in demand than an ugly object made from the same materials. Utility folds into the same equation. A blob of porcelain will not be as valuable as the same amount of porcelain shaped into a tea cup.

Age clearly plays a role as well. Some things age to junk. Other things age into antiques. Age plays a role in the value of an antique. Not all old examples of an antique are more valuable than newer examples but there is a general trend. I don’t think that all of the increase in value with age is a simple matter of scarcity either. Age brings with it an independent component of value.

Provenance—The Personal Touch

Anyone whose involvement with antiques extends as far as watching a few minutes of Antiques Road Show while flipping channels might know that there is another class of components to value. Those components come from people. A work becomes more valuable once it is attributed to a well known artist or designer. The person who created an object matters.

The other way that people increase value is by ownership. A nice 18th century chair is just a nice 18th century chair. If George Washington once sat in it or Thomas Jefferson once owned it, it is suddenly a very different object. It still looks the same. It is still made out of the same wood but it is much more valuable both tangibly and intangibly. It isn’t just worth more money, it is worth more attention.

Studies of perception hint that people subconsciously are Essentialists—that is we have an underlying belief that there is more to something than what meets the eye. We act as if things have essences that determine what they are. Our response to a thing is not just from what it looks like, what it seems to be, but also by our beliefs about the inner nature of the thing, our beliefs about a thing’s origins.

I’ve heard the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom explain this several times with a story about Herman Göring, the second highest in command in the Third Reich. One of his projects during the war was to amass a collection of priceless artworks. Göring wanted a Vermeer but had been unable to get his hands on one until a Dutch art dealer sold a masterpiece that he was able to buy. After the war, Göring’s art hoard was discovered and those guilty of having aided in the plundering were sought out for trial. Han van Meegeren, the Dutch art dealer, was imprisoned on charges of illegally selling a national treasure to the enemy. The maximum penalty for collaboration was death by hanging.

The Disciples at Emmaus, a Vermeer forgery by Han van Meegeren

When van Meegeren claimed to be innocent of the charges, he confessed to something else. He confessed to having painted the “Vermeer” himself. He proceeded to prove it by painting a Vermeer in front of witnesses. He even confessed to having painted several other Vermeers and a few works attributed to other Dutch masters. Paintings that once drew crowds at museums were suddenly worthless. There was nothing different about their appearance, the paints used were still the same, only the identity of the artist had changed.

Van Meegeren’s style in his forged Vermeers tells us something as well. They don’t look all that much like Vermeer. His strategy instead was to take a period of Vermeer’s life about which almost nothing was known and fill it with art that looked Vermeer-like enough to pass for a previously unknown period in his early career. They don’t show the qualities that make Vermeer’s art valuable. Instead they got their value from being believed to be by Vermeer.

So When Am I Getting to Genealogy?

I’m always interested in the back story behind endeavors. I recently listened to an interview with the British actor who started International Peace Day. Perhaps anyone with the right level of determination and commitment could try to get something like that going but he could also relate the story of his grandfather who was a prisoner of war outside Nagasaki when the atomic bomb exploded. Though he survived the bombing and the war, his death was influenced by his radiation exposure. That kind of story matters to us. It makes a difference. What Silicon Valley company would be complete without a story of how it was founded in a garage?

People have back stories as well. We get questions relating to them all the time. “What brings you here?” “How did you end up doing… ?” We don’t just have back stories, people actually want to know each other’s back stories.

I wonder if some of the power of genealogy to captivate us is that it deepens our back stories. It gives us a provenance. Knowing our ancestry changes who we are like knowing a chair’s provenance can change what it is. It doesn’t change us directly. I still look the same as I would if I knew nothing of my family history. My genetics are what they are and my eduction would probably be no different. I might be excited to learn that I have a famous ancestor but unlike an antique’s value, my “value” doesn’t go up due to provenance as if I was that hypothetical chair owned by Jefferson.

On the other hand, unlike an antique, we can reflect on our provenance. That reflection can change us. It can change how we look upon ourselves. We can think about how we are connected to the past. We can meditate on what our ancestors went through and ponder the spirit of their times, or, if we learn we have German ancestors, we can choose to ponder some long ago zeitgeist instead. We might find ourselves drawn into an understanding of a culture separated from us by at least time and perhaps space as well.

Learning my actual provenance doesn’t instantly change who I am, only I can do that. Yet, it can remind me of all the lives that went into producing my life. I can reflect on how I’m connected to history and I can widen that experience to an understanding of how we all have a “provenance.” It is made up of ancestors who were connected to their cultures, their societies, their places and there times—people who lived through what we think of as history. Every such provenance is unique,  every one of them is as worthy as every other and we all have one. If family history has a broader lesson to teach us, perhaps that is it.



Historical Footnotes

1) A witness described Göring’s reaction when he learned that his most prized painting, his Vermeer, was a fake. A man who should have felt the weight of the deaths of tens of millions of people on his conscience “looked as if for the first time he had discovered that there was evil in the world.”

2) His trial and the stories of his forgeries eventually made Han van Meegeren famous enough that his work was forged and fake Han van Meegeren paintings began to surface. Many of them were forged by van Meegeren’s own son.

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Topics: Forgotten History, Myth and Meaning | 4 Comments »

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4 Responses to “Personal Provenance”

  1. Greta Koehl Says:
    December 18th, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    This probably sums up more eloquently and more accurately than I have seen anywhere else the reasons I research my family. Now I just have to beware of those forgeries….

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    December 18th, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Thanks Greta! I appreciate it.
    Now that you mention it, part of my colonial ancestry actually was faked in the 19th century.

  3. Sheryl Says:
    December 21st, 2011 at 12:14 am

    Generations of my family lived in the same community for about 130 years. Recently, I have been reading the historical newspapers from that area. I am starting to see customs and verbal expressions that have been carried down to me. The newspapers are making me feel like a part of my ancestors historical community. It is very enlightening.

  4. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    December 21st, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Exactly, it reminds me of the story I told about my mother who hadn’t realized that she had grown up with Irish music until later in life and hadn’t known her father was half Irish until I traced the ancestry.