Thursday, January 6, 2011

Provenance and Old Socks

jp stocking I seem to have come across a number of old socks last month…Christmas stockings for sure, but also other pairs of socks that were featured in two different expositions. The Christmas stocking to the right is both priceless and worthless, as it belongs to Jean-Pierre…the feline member of the family…after previously belonging to his predecessor, Porquier-Beau. But the other socks had wildly different estimates of value.

A lesson in provenance.

Provenance generally means place of origin…the word itself being derived from the Latin word originale. But when used in reference to an item that is vintage or antique, it has come to mean something else as well. Something that results in one pair of old socks that crossed my path last month being listed as having no monetary value whatsoever, while another sold for over forty thousand dollars…41,940.63 in U.S. dollars to be exact, including the buyers’ premium and converted from euros using that day’s exchange rate.

The officially worthless socks were part of the estate of a photographer known as Chim…the pseudonym of David Seymour. Visiting an exposition of his work in Brussels, we learned that David Seymour (1911-1956) was born Dawid Szymin in Poland and took up photography while studying in Paris. His early photo journalism career resulted in many poignant images, including scenes of the Spanish civil war and a series featuring children displaced by the ravages of that and other wars. Later, as an American citizen, he co-founded the Magnum photo agency and was soon sought after for portrait work…such as this one of Audrey Hepburn on the set of the movie Funny Face
napoleon audrey hepburn 
The image below was also shot during the filming of Funny Face
napoleon avedon astaire…it shows the photographer Richard Avedon coaching Fred Astaire on how to be convincing in his movie role as a photographer.

The socks in this exposition were featured on a list that detailed the belongings left behind in Chim’s hotel room after he was killed while covering the armistice of the Suez War…
napoleon seymour list
napoleon seymour list detail

Quite a contrast from these socks…which are really more like silk stockings or tights…napoleon silk socksHere’s where provenance comes into play…provenance in the expanded sense that means being connected with a famous previous owner. For these silk stockings were worn by none other than Napoléon Bonaparte while on exile on the island of Saint Helena. Discolored and with a few stains here and there, they also sported an embroidered crowned “N”.

I should hope so for over forty thousand dollars!
napoleon n 300 
The stockings were in an auction that we stumbled upon while visiting Fontainebleau, Napoléon’s favorite château…a special auction consisting of items that were related in some manner to the Emperor…either personally, as in the case of the stockings, or decorative items made during the period of his reign up to that of his nephew (and first wife’s grandson), Napoléon III.

We took some photographs so you could “join” us…
napoleon auction room During the preview, the auction room was set up in several vignettes…this one featured a table with a base that had been fashioned  from candelabra said to have been owned by Maréchal Ney…a hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Despite being a made up piece, the hint of provenance pushed its final hammer price to $36,907.75.

The bidding was fast and furious…
napoleon auction
…and the results were often mind-boggling…
napoleon empire bed  …an Empire bed that was too short for anyone in our family to sleep in comfortably sold for $58,716.88…

napoleon tapestry… a wool and silk Aubusson tapestry of Napoléon I was a mere $23,486.75…and eight plates previously owned by Napoléon’s brother, Jérôme, King of Westphalia…
napoleon jerome plates…were a downright bargain at $5,032.88. A pewter fork with a bent tine that had been used in the kitchens of the Tuileries Palace…
napoleon fork 
had an estimate of 600-800 euros, but the bidding did not meet its reserve price.

And then there were the chairs…$36,907.75 for this one…napoleon beige chair …described in the auction catalog as having upholstery that was usagée or worn…

…or this one…
napoleon green chair …where the pitiful state of the upholstery wasn’t even mentioned…and it sold for $41,940.63!

And to think that I bothered to make the effort to try to train Jean-Pierre to use his scratching post…

Stay tuned for more behind the scenes adventures of The Meadows Collection…or check out the results at


  1. Loved visiting the auction with you Adela, those prices are staggering.
    I wonder what my antique gravure of Napolean might fetch??

  2. Adela, I am way behind in reading your blog, but enjoyed this so much. I'd like to have been a 'fly on the wall' at this auction.

  3. Hi Doris! It was totally crazy...and Napoléon's old socks were cheap compared to the cover lot...a pair of ornate guns described as being an "exceptional pair of high-quality flint pistols". They had belonged to Joseph Bonaparte and more than one bidder felt they were indeed exceptional...because they sold for over $500,000!

  4. Hi Maggie...the auction house was Osenat in Fontainebleau and they do have Napoléon-themed sales periodically. You might want to contact them about your gravure...their e-mail is Good Luck!