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On the Making, Recording and Provenance of a Piece

Presented to the Studio Furniture 2010 Wood Conference - Towards Professionalism. This is a fictional Story of a 'best practice' chain of events leading to a complete provenance of a commissioned piece of fine furniture.

This is my story to date.

I was made in the late 1970s by a highly respected furniture designer/maker whose name is Billie, as a commission for a family whose name is Cash. The family dealt with a commercial gallery that Billie exhibited with and sold work through regularly. They had seen a piece of his work in an important group exhibition, similar to the one we will see tonight.

I am a desk and was given by Mr Cash to his wife to celebrate an important birthday. They decided on a desk, as in the backs of their mind they thought it would be such an important piece that it might end up in the major Australian Gallery for Crafts at Dubbo. As a desk it might not get the same amount of use from the family and especially the grandchildren as for example a dining table in the family room.

Billie was holding some very special timber for just such an occasion, and the Cashes were invited to select some for the top and the front. They live on the western side of the Blue Mountains and wanted something that was native to the general region. The Cashes and Billie worked together on a design, with Billie presenting several ideas and drawings to them. The Cashes put these away carefully, along with a small piece of the original timber they chose.

I am a simple piece, and Billie exploited the character of my timber. He drew detailed drawings, and included construction details of the joints as he was trying something new. He took good photographs of steps of construction along the way.

I was finished and delivered to the gallery. Billie had stamped his maker’s mark underneath the left hand front edge of the desk, as he always did. Jewellers and artists always did this to identify their work and he was a bit surprised about the number of his colleagues who did not. He provided a number of the drawings and photos to the gallery director, along with his CV. He briefly described the timber and the products he used. He knew that this might be useful in future, if the desk required repairing or conservation and he was not asked to undertake the job

Back in his studio, he filed his own records of the making processes too. Again, he thought this might be useful.

In due course, the Cash family decided to talk to the curator at the Australian Gallery for Crafts about me and other works of craft in their collection. They had decided they wanted to take advantage of the federal government’s Cultural Gifts Program which enables people to take advantage of tax incentives for culturally significant gifts to Australia’s public collections. When a collecting institution decides that it would like to add a work to its collection under this scheme, the work has to be valued by two approved valuers. The valuations are provided to the institution and these are both sent, together with what is called a statement of significance for the artwork to the Committee who then approves the donation, or not.

So there are two reasons for keeping good records. The first is information that is readily available if the work requires conservation or repair – and this may apply whether or not the object is being donated to an institution. The other is to provide information for the valuer. If such information is more easily obtainable, it will be less expensive for whoever is paying for the valuation. Sometimes the potential donor pays, and at other times the institution will pay. Costs for a valuer are between $125 and $150 per hour and generally it seems a minimum time for the required research is 3 hours. In addition, if these records are available and are given to the collecting institution, it may help the curator to decide whether or not to accept the work. Such information provides provenance of the piece and this is one of the considerations in the decision-making process.

I am now sitting proudly in the main gallery of the Australian Gallery for Crafts. I am surrounded by the work of other furniture makers/designers, but my closest colleagues were also made by Billie.

I want to just say a little about the importance of keeping records of your work. I am a volunteer at the National Gallery of Australia, and the library collects what is called artists’ ephemera. This includes invitations to openings, information about artists – including craftspeople – newspaper clippings, and other small, paper-based items that relate to an artist’s work. If you don’t already send this information to the National Gallery, I am sure they would welcome it for their records. It is very valuable research material for people like me – as a valuer – and for potential historians. However, you should also collect this information in your own files. Keep price lists of exhibitions in which you are represented, keep invitations, if a more sophisticated catalogue of an exhibition is published, keep several copies. If an article is written about you or your work, keep original copies: if necessary you can always take a photocopy for another purpose. All this helps to enhance the actual piece of work. It adds to the general knowledge of your work, your work practice, and the general body of your work.

Meredith Hinchliffe
Independent Arts Commentator
Approved to Value Australian ceramics, glass, textiles, jewellery and leatherwork from 1970 for the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program.

Friday 07 October 2011