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A Story of Provenance

Number 8. Left 296 carats, 5.5cm by 8.5cm. Right 322 carats, 6cm by 9cm.

Provenance - a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.

When identifying turquoise, I have found the most reliable means to determine authenticity is to follow the provenance of ownership. That is often a challenge. There is often motivation from sellers to misrepresent the stone for their own profit. In this article I would like to demonstrate the process of determining the record of ownership of a specific set of turquoise cabochons that will demonstrate what would be considered accurate attribution of provenance.

This exercise will focus on two extraordinary cabochons of Number 8 turquoise. They are extraordinary because they come from an iconic turquoise mine and they are of the highest grade and of exceptional size seldom seen in any grade of turquoise but never before known in turquoise of this grade from Number 8. They were most certainly cut from the same nugget. Number 8 was known for having large nuggets but these come from one of what must have been one of the larger nuggets and are exceptional in their grade. Although turquoise identification can be difficult there are examples, usually of higher grade, which experienced and reputable turquoise and jewelry dealers will readily identify as a specific mine. These two would be recognized to most as Number 8. Yet having the additional understanding of the history of a particular stone or piece of jewelry only enhances the value of the piece.

Number 8 was a well-known turquoise mine when it was relocated from earlier mining by Lee Hand in 1944. He partnered with the Edgar brothers and they began mining turquoise. Number 8 does not exist as a located turquoise mine. The name is attributed to one part of the Blue Star claims in Eureka County Nevada. The Edgars, who bought out Lee Hand, had had some success during the late forties but the turquoise had apparently played out and by the early fifties there was little production. The story is recounted in Turquoise in America Part Two 1910-1990. The sudden location of a pocket of dark web turquoise forever changed the prospects and reputation of Number 8.

This dark web turquoise was limited but the reputation had been made. For the most part the nuggets of Number 8 turquoise were found in pockets of red clay which gave the turquoise its distinctive red web matrix. Before the area was lost forever, due to the existence of one of the most productive gold deposits in the world, much of the turquoise from Number 8 consisted of low-grade chalk which required chemical treatment before it could be used commercially in jewelry.

J.W. Edgar was not one of the owners of Number 8. He was a senior member of the family with his brother Willis Lemuel Edgar and his half brother David Holland (Doc). The five sons of Willis Lemuel, Travis (Chief), Willis Elwyn (Pete), June McCoy (Cutler), and the twins, James Doras (Ben) and John Horace (Dick), continued the legacy of the Edgars in turquoise history. Although not listed on the records of Number 8, J.W. was perhaps the most successful seller of turquoise in the family and was in partnership with Bill Brown in more than one trading post.

Often, especially with very large nuggets, the stone is not immediately cut and this may well have been the case in this instance. We know that J.W. sold either the cut cabs or the nugget to the Tobe Turpin Trading Post in Gallup New Mexico. Since the cabs are backed this would date them to no earlier than 1970 after Bill King had first learned to back turquoise. It is interesting that one of his first customers for backed stone was Tobe Turpin. Although backing was first developed as a way to use thin material that otherwise could not be used in jewelry, in this case it serves as a measure of insurance against these large gem grade cabs fracturing.

Edwin L. Kennedy was a retired senior partner and managing director of Lehman Brothers, the New York-based investment banking and financial services company, which he joined in 1941.He was an avid collector of Native American art including jewelry and bought these cabs from Tobe perhaps during the 1970’s. They remained in his collection, which he gifted to his alma mater Ohio University.

John Chaney, a well-known Indian jewelry trader, had done business with Mr. Kennedy and John had a distinctive gold concho belt that Kennedy wished to purchase. Rather than purchase outright he had John fly to the east coast and pick out a number of items from the collection in trade including these cabs. This would have been in the late eighties. John sold the cabs to a collector who held them for many years. As with many collectors as he aged, he became concerned regarding the disposition of the cabs after he passed and John received the cabs on consignment which he sold to the current owner.

Buying turquoise can be a challenge especially to a newcomer. The market is split between treated stone and natural with significant price difference between the two. Compounding the problem are dishonest dealers who may misrepresent treated turquoise as natural. When purchasing turquoise try to educate yourself as much as possible and only deal with reputable well-established dealers. Knowing the provenance of the stone is an important part of this process.

Mike Ryan II


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