Tracking the provenance of an item can be an interesting exercise but it is often a frustrating one. It is usually impossible to track where a document has been since it was originally signed. The farther back you go, the harder it becomes. There are good reasons for that: lack of early records; privacy of buyer and seller; the large quantity of private sales; that the letter written by a famous person is often to someone of lesser fame and that person’s archives are not tracked.
But it is sometimes possible to find something either in the hands of the original owner or find a previous sale that takes you back a very long time.
This letter of Catherine the Great came from a prominent collection assembled in the 1920s-40s. So we were excited to find the identity of its own owner even farther back. The letter of Catherine the Great, whose image was published and owner identified in an 1865 book.
Sometimes, the owner of the object is the original recipient. This pristine baseball signed by Babe Ruth was given by him to the man who sold it to us.
The book from the library of Henry Clinton, which original sale by the descendants was reported by American and English publications in the 1880s.
This note of Renoir spoke to the nature of the artist and felt important to us, different from anything of the artist we had seen. Then we found it published in a biography of Renoir, along with the name of the owner.
This document of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams marked the official act of peace between the English and Americans of the Revolutionary War. We found its sale at public auction in the 1930s. Then, it was bought by a man whose heirs sold it to us.
We knew this letter of Washington was unpublished and that it was sent to his doctor and related to the inoculations for smallpox mandated for the Continental Army by General Washington during the Revolution. But what a pleasant surprise to receive it and find a note indicating it had served as a graduation gift from parents to child a century ago.