Big Red here at me favorite waterin hole, Cohan's Pub.
Pull up a chair, have a pint....
In our discussion on context, we determined that the M-1 helmet is a collectible relic on the road to becoming an antique that, depending on circumstance, may have aspects of an artifact or stolen property. Provenance, like context, has a multitude of aspects to its definition that often walk hand in hand with the applicable definition of context. So, is provenance proof or just a story?
A good working definition for provenance is the place of origin or earliest known history of something; somethings origin; or a record of ownership used to demonstrate authenticity or quality. Some of these definitions apply more to Archeology while others are a better description of how the art world tracks and documents ownership. Further complicating this is the militaria collector's use of provenance in reference to authentication which is more akin to connoisseurship, meaning comparison of known examples, techniques, attributes or documents that prove a helmet and its assembly are appropriate for a specific time period.
Because militaria collectors, for the most part, have proven to be notoriously bad at any form of historical record keeping outside oral storytelling, connoisseurship has unwittingly been used to fill in the gaps left in the historical provenance of helmets in the quest to authenticate them. The lack of documentation for ownership or context really can’t be laid at the feet of militaria collectors as they are not Archaeologists or Art Curators. While some could be described as Antiquarians, as they study and understand history through the objects they collect, most militaria collectors are just that, collectors.
Because militaria collecting relates more to the world of antiques than it does to art or archaeology the technical definition of provenance becomes vague and tends to pull a little from each discipline for a consensus of definition. For collectors of the M-1 helmet provenance can be better understood and managed by dividing it into three categories, manufacture, discovery and ownership.
Provenance of manufacture is a relatively easy prospect as the records of the M-1 helmet steel making process were kept as a permanent record, for the purpose of quality control, in each helmet body by pressing a fine line alpha-numeric stamp into the underside of the helmet.
McCord Radiator & Manufacturing Company was the first and primary fabricator of the M-1 helmet of WWII and are easily identified by the lot and lift numbers pressed into the brim of helmet bodies of their manufacture.
In recent years, helmet lot numbers have been used in a seemingly obsessive attempt, by some collectors, to establish provenance of manufacture of helmet bodies down to the specific month, week and day of their pressing. These arguments are largely emotional and lack all but circumstantial observation based data that, although they might help a collector justify to a spouse why they have so many helmets that otherwise look exactly the same, they carry less weight with experienced collectors.
At the current level of factual understanding of helmet lot numbers, experienced collectors can ascertain several contextual aspects about a helmet body. One of these aspects it the ability to definitively establish provenance of manufacture through the identification of the specific company that fabricated the helmet body. This is possible because subsequent fabricators were required to add the first letter of their company name to the lot and lift numbers making them unique to each fabricator.
For example, a helmet body with the letter "S" in conjunction with the lot and lift number is attributable to Schlueter Manufacturing Company of St. Louis, Missouri and because production documentation shows that Schlueter only pressed helmets during the war, helmets marked in this way clearly have provenance of manufacture or “origin” of a WWII Schlueter helmet. A collector can then apply connoisseurship by looking at the helmets attributes like profile, chin straps, loops, buckles, rim and so forth to first authenticate and more precisely place the helmet in the time frame of early, mid, late or possibly post war use.
Collector's Note: Although additional identification was not necessary for McCord's WWII contracts, their post war contracted helmets included a letter "M" which preceded the lot and lift number.
Unless a helmet is found during an archaeological dig on a battlefield, provenance of discovery becomes an undocumented story of recollections handed down orally from seller to collector. Unfortunately, provenance of ownership is not much better than discovery because, *aside from the novelty that veteran acquired helmets can be considered stolen property, collectors have always been more interested in authentication as opposed to keeping a documented record with a helmet when it changes hands.
* See blog: Pub Talk - "context"
In fact, the only instances when obtaining documentation of ownership seem to come into play is when dealing with helmets, which have customization like the addition of names, numbers or art.
The collector pursuit of “named” helmets is a more recent trend that has developed and grown as more service records are digitized and made available online. Even though an exact match to a name or number in the National Archives only accounts for one level of past ownership and does not cover the gap between when it left the ownership of the named individual and that of the current owner, the potential of that brief period of ownership seems to satisfy most collectors.
In the end, provenance amongst M-1 helmet collectors is not a unified definition rather, it varies based on individual collecting focus. For some a M-1 helmet of WWII manufacture is all the provenance they need. Collectors who focus on specific events will pursue provenance to provide context for a helmet having been there and done that. Collectors enjoy spinning the tale of the hunt and the how, where and when they found a helmet in their collection but their tales of discovery much like the trails of ownership are rarely documented and undocumented provenance is only a story.