How much is "provenance" worth?

“Provenance” has to be stronger than “family stories.” Provenance has to be based on verifiable documentation…not just hearsay and wishful thinking.
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JAG FILE HEADER

How Much is Provenance Worth?

Growing up in rural, southeastern, Minnesota, my big brother would wear Dad’s “Army boots” whenever he went hunting. The boots were a pair of reddish brown, knee-high boots with three straps and buckles up each calf. Years later, I would learn these were “Boots, Leather, Lace. Legging Top,” cavalry boots introduced in 1940. But back in the late 1960s, they were just “Dad’s army boots.”

The fact is, Dad brought home a fair amount of material after he was mustered out in 1946 after four years of service. In addition to his Class As, lots of khaki cotton pants and shirts (which dad used for fishing and working in the garden) and his visor cap, our attic, toy box, hunting supplies, and cedar chest contained at least a dozen wool Army issue blankets (the best on Minnesota winter nights!), a couple of pair wool ski trousers, a M1936 musette pack, pistol belt with .45-caliber magazine pouch and first aid pouch, a training grenade, a Cattaraugus 225 knife, lots of .45 and .30-06 ammo, a helmet liner, loose 7th Service Command and 104th Division patches, and a brass whistle.

It seems Dad was pretty well-equipped during his service, or so I believed.

Provenance is more than what they say it is

It wasn’t until 20 years later when I began to have a growing interest in US WWII collectibles that I started to ask Dad about how he got all of his military stuff. Like a lot of old veterans, the “stuff” didn’t matter so much to him as did the four years of his life he gave to his country. It was frustrating for him to listen to my questions about boots, pants, and patches. But I was young and fully engrossed in “collecting the stuff.” I persisted in holding up items that he brought home and asking him about the history of each.

The Ski Pants

Me: “I know you were an MP at Camp Hale. Is that why you had ski pants?”

Dad: “I never wore a damn pair of skis in the Army! All we used [as military policeman at Camp Hale] were snow shoes. We left the skis to those damn college boys [indicating the men of the 10th Mountain Division, then training at Hale].

Me: So, why  the ski pants?

Dad: I didn’t get those at Hale. I got them at Fort Lewis when I was about the leave to muster out of service. They had boxes of them and said we could take as many as we wanted.”

Provenance: Though he served at Camp Hale, it was too easy for me to leap to the conclusion that these were “Dad’s ski pants.” In reality, Dad never wore the pants in the service. They weren’t even issued to him.

The Blankets

Me: “How did you end up with so many wool blankets?”

Dad: Those came from Camp Sheridan when I mustered out. They had a train car full of them and we were encouraged to take as many as we wanted. I filled a duffle bag with them. My Mom was going to be so happy to have 100% wool blankets.


Provenance: Dad never slept on those blankets before he returned to his childhood home as a civilian after the war.

The Grenade and Field Gear

Dad's military "bring backs" weren't all associated with his service. Some he picked up on the way home, and some items just got lumped into his military "grouping" over the years.  Provenance is much more than just proximity to other items. 

Dad's military "bring backs" weren't all associated with his service. Some he picked up on the way home, and some items just got lumped into his military "grouping" over the years.  Provenance is much more than just proximity to other items. 

Me: What about the pistol belt and “backpack” (that’s what we called the musette bag)?

Dad: Those were mine. When I left Fort Lewis, I stuffed those in the bottom of my duffle bag before I packed my uniforms over them. Nobody was checking, but I knew I probably shouldn’t be taking that stuff home.

Provenance: Dad really did wear and use the field gear. Probably after he was transferred to Fort Lewis and assigned to the 104th Division.

The Knife

Me: “Was the knife issued to you?”

Dad: “We bought these knives at the hardware store in Leadville [the nearest town to Camp Hale]. They had been rejected by the army and were being sold as seconds.”

Me: But you carried at Camp Hale?

Dad: Lots of the boys did. They cost two bits and were unsharpened. We took them back to camp, sharpened them, and had good knives to use when out on maneuvers.”

Provenance: Interestingly, the Cattaraugus 225 (that each of Dad’s sons carried while hunting) was a “private purchase” knife that saw service in WWII. It really was “Dad’s Army knife.”

The Boots

Well, this brief explanation all leads us back to those triple-buckle, knee high boots. To be honest, I had traded them about 20 years earlier for what I thought was an original M1858 Hardee Hat (it wasn’t). I had carried the guilt of trading “Dad’s Army boots” for the two previous decades before asking about them.

Me: What about those tall boots? Were they part of your Military Policeman uniform?”

Dad: Where are those old boots?

Me: Oh, I, uh…

Dad: I never wore those boots in the service. There were stacks of them at Fort Lewis that were never issued. I sent that pair to my Dad thinking he would like them for hunting.

Provenance: Dad’s "Army boots” had nothing to do with  Dad’s service other than being some easy plunder that he sent home. Incidentally, my guilt washed away after I admitted to him that I traded his boots years ago. His reply was, “They weren’t worth a damn anyway!”

Without gathering Dad’s stories, these items could have easily descended into history as items typical of an NCO who was a military policeman at Camp Hale and later assigned to the 104th Division. If that story followed the relics, it could have a negative impact on the history of what soldiers in these units actually wore and used. 

“Provenance” has to be stronger than “family stories” or proximity. Provenance has to be based on verifiable documentation…not just hearsay and wishful thinking.

WHY NOT BELIEVE THE STORY?

All of this soul-cleansing about my Dad’s military bring-backs is just a primer for what I want to discuss: The value of the story.

Sure, any seasoned collector will instantly rattle off, “Buy the relic, not the story.” But how many abide by it?

This past October, Morphy’s Auction sold a musket that the company claimed to have fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill (you remember the story: “Don’t fire 'til you see the whites of their eyes!” Well, supposedly, this was the first to fire, its owner jumping the command to the infantry troops facing the advancing British.”

The story connected to the musket is compelling. A pre-auction press release boasted, “Private John Simpson fired [this] gun immediately after the order: ‘Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes’ – Musket & commission have remained in family for 244 years.”

The release went on to say, “Arguably the most significant, positively identified Revolutionary long arm in existence…is expected to sell for $100,000-$300,000.”

And with that, the wheels of the internet were spun into action.

Touted as the musket that fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Morphy Auctions sold this Type III Dutch Musket in October 2019, for $490,000.  Without that attached provenance, a musket in this condition would have likely sold for around $3,000.  

Touted as the musket that fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Morphy Auctions sold this Type III Dutch Musket in October 2019, for $490,000.  Without that attached provenance, a musket in this condition would have likely sold for around $3,000.  

Many loved the idea that this musket was hard evidence of the story we have all heard about holding fire 'til you see the whites of their eyes.” If true, it is the veritable “thing of legend.”

And while some were swept up by the story and the relic, others chose to dig deeper. Even though the weapon descended through the family of a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the story connected to the musket didn’t first appear in print until 1906 when an article in The Granite State Magazine titled, “Major John Smith: The Man Who Fired the First Shot at Bunker Hill” linked the gun to the legend. A photograph of the gun and Simpson’s military commission appeared in the article, captioned, “The gun that fired the first shot at Bunker Hill.” And with that, the wheels of [wishful] history were set in motion.

For the October 2019 auction, several copies of a 50+ page booklet accompanied the musket. The presale press release described the booklet as “extensive professional research compiled and written by Jonathan Holstein expressly for the gun’s current owner. The book scrupulously documents the firearm’s provenance, the Simpson family’s history, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and Simpson’s court martial.”

Interestingly, I could find no trace of any other articles or books about historic firearms authored by Jonathan Holstein, so that alone makes the research suspect for such a supposedly prominent weapon. That stated, the booklet is more of a compilation of sources related to Simpson, indirectly related to “Type III muskets” with reprints of the 1906 article, to boot. There is no conclusive evidence submitted, but rather, all the bits and pieces that could cause someone wanting to believe to point to this and say, “See! Here’s the proof” — proof withstanding.

And just before the October sale, a 7-page article appeared in the September 2019 issue of U.S. Martial Arms Collector and Springfield Research Newsletter (No. 160) about the musket. This seems to be quite a coincidence since the subject of the article was already consigned for auction in October.

Nevertheless, all of this anecdotal (and hopeful) evidence sounded good to bidders and those willing to put aside a healthy bit of skepticism when faced with an incredible story. In fact, the much publicized sale of the musket closed at $492,000. Not a bad pay day for Simpson descendants or the company that offered the gun for sale!

The problem, however, is two-fold. First, most scholars of military firearms of the Revolutionary War agree that this particular model of Dutch firearm (a three-banded musket), though produced during prior to the American Revolutionary War, wasn’t imported to the United States (and not the Colonies) until late in the 18th Century — after the Battle of Bunker Hill. No problem, the 50+ page booklet produced for the family about the musket indicates that John Simpson, the original owner, must have privately purchased the musket. That is possible – but darn hard to prove. It’s too bad such a grand relic remained closeted for 131 years after the battle (including 30 years after the momentous Centennial of the United States in 1776 when thousands of cherished relics of the Revolution were revealed and celebrated). Apparently, the Simpson family just didn’t remember the old musket or John’s claim to have used it a Bunker Hill was all that significant. That is, not until 1906 when that first article about it appeared — 81 years after John’s death!

But that little slip in the provenance didn’t deter those with the will to believe in the sanctity of this seeming national treasure. Well, at least for some. 

The “word on the circuit” is that the family has been trying to sell this weapon for many years, having been turned down by at least two major auction houses that didn’t accept the provenance as a legitimizing characteristic. Finally, the buyers found a willing representative. Morphy’s Auctions either misunderstood, overlooked, or didn’t care about the documentable facts of the musket. They offered it for sale this past October.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Anybody can offer anything for sale and say whatever they like about it. The onus of responsibility is on the buyer, not the seller. If the buyer doesn’t know what they are purchasing (or care), there is nothing any of us can do. That is a match made in auction heaven between the seller and the buyer.

So, to answer the question at the beginning of this editorial, “How much is provenance worth?” In the case of the Dutch musket that descended through the family of Battle of Bunker Hill veteran John Simpson, about $490,000. The Dutch “Type III” Musket without the story would fetch around $2000-$3000 without the story (and that doesn’t factor in the commission the auction house gets).

Which brings me to the second problem of this lengthy appeal. Historians must strive to make the facts known. Today, more so than ever before, missteps are not easily forgotten. The internet has a long memory. 

As more people research and write about this musket, the next time it comes up for sale (and it will), a simple search will reveal the many blemishes to its legend. Regardless of how pock-marked with historic anachronisms it might be, it will still be a musket some paid nearly half-a-million dollars to purchase. That’s a pretty big blemish to overlook.

Buy the artifact, not the story. — JAG