Taking My Hacks

Problematic "Provenance"

Joe Orlando

Every time a piece of sports memorabilia comes up for sale, the issue of provenance rears its ugly head. Provenance has really no affect on trading cards since the value is generally not tied to ownership but, when it comes to collectibles like autographs, game-used equipment, photos, trophies and more, this issue can be one of massive importance.

If provenance is legitimate and interpreted correctly, it can have serious impact on the value of a piece. The problem is that provenance is sometimes fabricated, manipulated, misrepresented or misinterpreted. This is a very serious issue.

Remember this... a story is just that, a story. A story is not provenance. True provenance provides a link to ownership that, in some way, helps validate the piece in question. In many cases, provenance cannot validate the piece by itself, no matter how legitimate the provenance is. The piece, in the vast majority of cases, must stand on its own merit. Provenance should be viewed as an additional layer in most cases, not the basis for authentication.

Here's an example of how provenance can be manipulated. Sometimes, you will see a game-used bat come up for sale accompanied by a provenance letter from a notable person, like an ex-teammate. The fact that the bat came from an ex-teammate or from another noteworthy source does not and cannot prove that the bat is legitimate or that it was actually used by the player in question. All it proves is that the bat was once owned by the ex-teammate – that's it.

The bat itself tells a true expert all he needs to know about its authenticity and the likelihood of game-use by the player. It's the merit of the piece, on its own, that matters. A letter from an ex-teammate cannot make a store model bat into a pro bat and the fact that he once owned it does not mean that another player used it. The characteristics of the bat itself provide the answers an expert needs.

Now, if you can find an item that is authentic and of high-quality on its own merit and one that is accompanied by great provenance, now you have something special. The problem is that many collectors do not distinguish between the two aspects of a piece, merit and provenance. As long as you take provenance in context, you can weigh its importance effectively.

Sometimes, provenance is actually fabricated completely but most experts can identify the concocted story based on the merit of the item itself. If a baseball was manufactured after Babe Ruth passed away or if it was signed by his nurse, it wasn't signed by the Sultan of Swat. If a Mickey Mantle professional model bat came directly from a MLB umpire but it shows absolutely no "Mantle" game-use characteristics, then the bat cannot receive a high grade – no matter where it came from because there is no proof of game-use by Mantle.

At PSA, we are noticing a greater effort on the part of forgers and provenance manipulators to focus on the story in hopes that it will influence or enhance the authenticity of items.

If you keep in mind that merit should always override provenance when applicable and that provenance is often an added layer of authenticity, not the basis for it, then provenance should not continue to be problematic.

Never get cheated,

Joe Orlando

Joe Orlando
Editor In Chief