Provenance Detectives

Revealing the History of Six Library Artifacts

This exhibit highlights six artifacts chosen for their fascinating and sometimes mysterious provenance, as well as their ability to illustrate the different paths provenance research takes. Artifacts featured in the exhibit include: a fourteenth century Magna Carta; furniture used by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; and a painting of Justice John Marshall by eminent portrait artist Chester Harding.

Provenance Detectives Exhibit Poster

Provenance
Definition:

1. The origin or source of something.
2. Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.
Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, Richard Pearce-Moses

At its most basic, provenance answers the question “Before it was here, where was it?” In certain situations, finding out the answer to this question has ethical and political ramifications. In other situations, as you will see in this exhibit, it is a story of happy accidents. In Historical & Special Collections, we have examples of portraits, modern manuscripts, and books whose provenance is completely documented. But we also have many, many artifacts whose whole stories have yet to be told and may never be fully discovered.

Online resources and digitized materials have made a huge difference in our ability to engage in provenance research, which traditionally included in-person visits to and correspondence with archives and libraries, as well as painstaking perusal of biographical dictionaries and dealers’ sales catalogs. And while the history of an object can be thrilling and engrossing, with a collection as large as ours there are moments when the cataloger or curator may have to leave some questions unanswered--no matter how difficult it may be to leave a mystery unsolved.

This exhibit highlights six artifacts chosen for their fascinating and sometimes mysterious provenance, as well as their ability to illustrate the different paths provenance research takes.

This exhibit was curated by Mary Person, Lesley Schoenfeld, and Carli Spina. This exhibit was on view at the Harvard Law School Library from April 16 - August 12, 2012.