Where does the cane originate? Are there any identifying marks? Is the walking stick engraved with a name or date? Can a maker’s mark be seen on the handle, shaft or ferrule? Can the cane be traced back through previous owners? Is the material from which the handle and/or shaft is made of any use in localizing and/or identifying place of origin (e.g., an indigenous wood, or metalworking process)?
The slippery slope of provenance!
Where a stick comes from, to which any collector will attest, can be difficult to trace, as the pathway back to the object’s point of origin has long grown cold. Photographs leading to a direct identification are rarely found. Oftentimes a stick has changed hands many times. Given their small size and therefore portability, walking sticks end up far from where they originated, making tracing quite difficult.
And the stories! When purchasing a stick, I make it a point of asking sellers for any history they might have. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to be provided some real provenance (or at least as real as I’m willing to believe!). For example, I have a GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) cane purchased from a local dealer, who had been asked by the previous owner to offer her phone number to whomever purchased the cane, as she was most interested in passing along the family lore with regard to the stick. And I was most interested in hearing it! I dialed the number provided me, and an elderly woman answered the phone. On identifying myself as the buyer of the GAR cane, this lovely woman shared with me her family history behind the stick, which I will share with readers at a future time.
Tight provenance or just a good story–oftentimes it is impossible to say. Trust your instincts with regard to your purchases. Before spending a lot of money on your purchase, make sure you have adequate and believable documentation from the seller regarding the provenance he is providing, as a stick with tight provenance may dramatically increase its value—and radically decrease its value if the provenance is found to be faulty. Is the provenance the seller is offering you, for example, a story dating a stick to the 18th century, consistent with what you know about a cane dating to that period of time? Is the asking price far above what the value of the stick otherwise would be? Call in the “experts,” other collectors whose opinions you value and trust.