Smithsonian Associates

Art Collectors Program

Help keyboard_arrow_right Collection Management: The First Step

By Vivian L. Ebersman
Director, Fine Art Department AXA Art Insurance Corporation
Caring for Your Art, by AXA Art Insurance Corporation

You’'ve assembled a great collection. How do you look after it? First of all, this is an ongoing process extending from proper installation and the right insurance coverage to planning for subsequent stewardship. A conservator, appraiser, and attorney may all play a role.

Documenting each work

A good first step is documenting and tracking relevant information. Maintain a separate file for each work. Include the purchase invoice with date and seller. Ask the gallery or auction house for available photographs as well as exhibition and conservation histories. Take color photographs of the back and front of a painting, and several angles of a three-dimensional object. Record any information on the back of a photograph as it will be hidden once the work is framed. Train your eye to detect all nuances about the baseline condition of each object: Is there an anomalous patch of paint? Do striations appear in the patina of a bronze sculpture? Date all observations. Finish by completing the checklist at the end of this article. Your records can be paper, electronic, or a mixture. With a simple spreadsheet, Microsoft Access database, or off-the-shelf collection management software, you can create reports with ease. Plan to store a copy of your data in a separate location. Although you may prune works from your collection, keep the records. They are a valuable part of your collection’s history.

Research

Learn all you can about the content or meaning of each work and the times in which it was made. Research the artist’s biography. Make it a goal to visit exhibitions of artists you collect. Clip and save their reviews from newspapers, magazines, and on-line. Follow their stylistic development. Whose works are like theirs? What periods within their work are considered most important? Challenge yourself to grasp the details as well as the large picture.

Tracking

You will want to be aware of the market conditions for the areas in which you collect. Are values climbing, falling, or remaining stable? This information will guide many decisions, from insurance and gifting to security and estate planning. Auction catalogues as well as on-line auction databases such as Artnet.com, artprice.com, or AskART.com provide a useful range of pricing for paintings and sculptures. Artfact.com follows furniture and decorative arts as well. For a more precise figure turn to a certified appraiser. Specify whether you require fair market value (the basis – with adjustments – for taxes, gifts, and donations) or replacement value (for insurance). Fair Market Value is equivalent to the price likely to be received at auction. Replacement Value is usually higher, and can be thought of as an object’s retail price. It is wise to have a collection re-appraised every five years or so. As the foregoing suggests, good collections management is the rational side of collecting. Yet its rewards are also satisfying, and it yields a fine result: a collection secured for the ages.

Checklist

Below is essential information to record about each item in your collection.

  • Artist/Maker
  • Dates of Artist/Maker
  • Title of Work
  • Description of Subject Matter or Type of Work
  • Date of Work
  • Materials
  • Dimensions
  • Condition: Describe the object’s surface, and carefully note any changes during periodic re-examinations. If you send a work for conservation, obtain the conservator’s report and file it. Note in your record the date of the report and that you have added it to the file.
  • Inscriptions and Markings: Examine the back as well as the front of every two-dimensional work. Record earlier labels, inventory numbers, artist signatures, and all other writing.
  • Distinguishing Features
  • Location of Object: Especially important if you have more than one residence.
  • Display: Who framed or mounted it? How was it secured?
  • Provenance: What is the collection history of the object? To whom did it previously belong? Pay special attention to antiquities and to any work created before 1946 thought to have been in Europe after 1932.
  • Bibliography: Is your work cited in the catalogue raisonné of the artist? This will definitely affect valuation, as authentication frequently depends on a work’s inclusion in the accepted catalogue raisonné. Are there other citations?
  • Exhibition History: If possible file a copy of the catalogue of any show in which a work has appeared. Otherwise make a copy of the complete reference including dates and location.
  • Purchase Price and Date
  • Appraisal History
  • Loan History: Record exhibition dates, venues, and the value placed on the work at the time of the loan. Make notes about its condition before it leaves, and require a condition report from each location.