Sweet Provenance


Let's set the record straight. Antiques Roadshow should not be successful. It simply should not be attracting anyone my age (33). It certainly shouldn't be must-see, stupefyingly interesting, addictive-like-a-potato-chip television. Yet it is. Antiques Roadshow has what you might call legions of loyal viewers. It's demographics are all over the map, but are pretty significant in the sweetspot of 30 - 50 somethings with money. How is this possible? Why are people willingly subjecting themselves to esoteric descriptions of sometimes astonishingly ugly antiques and their appraisal of value? I think the answer – and this is important for designers and their clients , I swear – might be provenance.

This comes up time and again on The Roadshow. Some lovely person brings in a rifle. It looks old. We find out that, hey, it's old! Base on this information, the rifle is worth about a thousand bucks. That's pretty good. A thousand bucks for a thing you just pulled out of the closet for the first time in 35 years. But wait. We also happen to have a letter from this lovely person's great grandfather describing how he received the rifle from General Custer. And look! There's a picture of great grandpa with the rifle. And who's that at the end of the line? Custer himself. With such intriguing provenance this rifle has just gone up $15,000 dollars! Custer never even owned it, he just awarded it to gramps. Holy cow. Glad somebody filed that stuff in the shoe box.

What's going on here? How can a rifle that never technically "belonged" to Custer, but probably (only probably!) was touched by him be worth so much more than any old rifle. Because people love the story of the item. People attach values to stories. Antiques Roadshow gives us actual – to use business lingo – metrics as to the value of story. In this case, sixteen grand.

Designers are great at creating narrative around the wares of our clients. That's not what this is about. What's important is that designers need to understand the difference between story and provenance. Now, I'm not even sure I'm quite there in regards to this, but we have to recognize the importance. Provenance seems to be this extra bit of assurance to the audience that this thing is real and somehow special. It's a story based in what is and what has been, it's not aspirational. It's not about what we want something to be. There's nothing wrong with building brands on aspirational stories, but a story with provenance seems like money in the bank.

So who out there is using provenance to their advantage? That's a question that I'm looking to delve into a little further. I want to see how much we can stretch the definition of provenance. In the meantime, this post was written by Jason Laughlin, who has a very good friend whose grandfather designed the Spirograph and the Sit 'n' Spin. How much will you give me for it?