Best free resources for provenance research

By | February 21, 2016

While it is the contention of myself and many other collectors that unprovenanced coins are by-and-large not recent finds(and the number of coins in my collection where I have recovered lost provenance proves that), provenance should still be an important concern among collectors. It is my opinion that, when possible, all known provenance should be supplied to buyers when selling coins and in some cases it may even be required to legally import a coin, but in many cases, provenance isn’t kept simply because some collectors don’t care or because it can be disadvantageous for a dealer to share provenance(and thus, information about price paid) with potential buyers and in most of the world, provenance is not legally required, so how does one find lost provenance? One option is to build a massive library of old catalogs, and while this is a viable option for some collectors, most of us(myself included) do not have the money or space for it, so we must turn to other resources. I have listed a few of my most frequently used resources, as well as tips for using them, below:

  • – This should be any collector’s first stop for provenance research. While their auction history is largely post-Y2K, it is the best starting point for hunting down old provenances. When I search here, I start out with the catalog number of a given type, i.e. for my denarius of A. Postumius A.f. Sp.n. Albinus, I started with “372/2”, its Crawford number. Quite a few results were returned so I added “3.72”, its weight in grams, to help narrow down the candidates and I was presented with only two results, one of which was my coin, from Auktionshaus H. D. Rauch GmbH Summer Auction 2008, lot 317, September 15 2008 . No, this isn’t a pre-1970 provenance, but it does prove that this coin had been on the market for at least 7 year when I purchased it and is not a recent find. This provenance is now documented in my gallery and my personal notes and will be supplied to any future owners.
  • CNG e-archives – CNG’s e-archives go back quite a ways. Between their e-archives and the scans of their printed catalogs(discussed below) most CNG auctions are covered and because CNG is one of the most prolific auction houses out there, they can be an excellent source for coins in every price range.
  • CNG archives on ISSUU – CNG has scanned and upload almost every printed catalog that isn’t already on their e-archives. They also had them OCR’d so that their text is searchable. Now, for verifying provenance or simply looking over an auction one can easily go, find the catalog and search for individual coins via the website, but there’s also a trick that allows these archives to be searched en masse using Google site search. To do this, go to Google and search “ [search]” where search is the search terms like you’d use at ACSearch. OCR isn’t perfect and sometimes the “/” in a Crawford reference will get interpreted incorrectly or something, so be creative, using things like Sydenham numbers or die numerals as appropriate. For example, for my denarius of C. Naevius Balbus, searching for 382/1b didn’t work because it was cataloged incorrectly as 382/1a and the OCR didn’t read the “382/1” correctly but I was able to find its lost provenance of CNG XIV lot 693 from March 20, 1991 by searching for its reverse die numeral, “CCV”. I was also to find lost Goodman provenance from CNG 45 for my “Bull and MD” sextans using similar searches.
  • WildWinds – WildWinds is a great site for identifying coins but what many collectors don’t realize is that it’s also a great site for finding provenance hits for coins sold on various sites going back to 1999. Shortly after I purchased my Ti. Minucius C.f. Augurinus denarius I actually managed to find an old picture of it and a provenance record on the WildWinds page for the type. Nowadays I always make sure to check WildWinds when doing provenance research for a given coin.
  • VCoins sold items – when I’ve exhausted the above resources, if I have some idea of a dealer it was once purchased from, I will occasionally turn to VCoins’ and search sellers’ sold items. Unfortunately it cannot be searched en masse except by using a Google site search similar to the one used for the CNG archives listed above, but it can be helpful. For example, I knew that my L. Procilius serrate denarius was Ex. Andrew McCabe and purchased from Roma in 2009 and while I had no reason not to trust the listed provenance, it is my goal to verify when possible. Unfortunately they are no longer on Vcoins, however I was able to find the original sold listing in their sold archives when they were and confirm the provenance.
  • Older scanned auction catalogs – There are too many various sources to check for these, but Andrew McCabe’s website is a good starting point for finding free scans of old auction catalogs. I have yet to get a hit in one of these, and they are not nearly as easily searched as others because of their cataloging methods, but when all else fails it can be good to scan through these.

I hope the posted resources help you find lost provenances. Please feel welcomed to share anything you find in the comments as I’d love to see what you find and if you find any new resources for provenance research, please share as I’m always hunting for new data points. One of these days I’ll get around to discussing some of my favorite printed auction catalogs that can’t be found online, but until then, happy hunting!

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