The Power of Provenance
Posted by Brian Burns on Mon, Jul 30, 2012
The reasons people bid and buy at auction are endless and often times personal. Some want to complete a collection while others are combing auction catalogs for items that carry sentimental value. Sometimes, however, buyers do not even want the item itself; they want its history. The provenance of an item, the intangible story behind it, can weigh considerably on the final selling price. Knowing that, the obvious question arises, how much are you willing to pay to own a story?
In May, 2003, two years following his death, the estate of world renowned violinist Isaac Stern was up at auction. Included in the sale was a violin created in 1994 by maker Samuel Zygmuntovich. It was bought for a staggering $130,000 and set the record for highest price paid at auction for a string instrument by a living maker. The instrumental world was shocked!
According to Stefan Hersh, of Darnton and Hersh Fine Violins, “one could order a comparable violin from Mr. Zygmuntovich for less than $40,000.” He is quick to note that in the last 9 years since the sale, no other Zygmuntovich violin has come close to a comparable cost. Hersh concludes that, “the Isaac Stern provenance was the ‘x’ factor that accounted for the violin’s greater than 200% premium.”
Another famous example is the Andy Warhol screen print of Mao Zedong that was auctioned from the collection of actor Dennis Hopper in January, 2011. Christie’s Auction House estimated that the final sale price would range from $20,000 to $30,000. No one anticipated that by the end of the bidding war, the print would sell for an astronomical $302,500!
The ‘x’ factor here was the two bullet holes that Hopper shot through the print. As Christie’s tells us, “one night the actor got spooked, mistook the portrait on his wall for Mao himself and shot at it.” After seeing what Hopper had done, Warhol is said to have called the work a collaborative effort and proceeded to draw circles around each hole, labeling one “warning shot” and the other “bullet hole.” There is little doubt that Hopper’s radical behavior and Warhol’s subsequent addition to the print lead to its spectacular auction price.