People either love making lists or hate it. In this regard, there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground in the way we approach life. While the idea of creating an inventory list for an art collection might fill some people with joy, other people dread it and most likely won’t do it. However, having an art collection requires a sense of organisation, as a lot of the potential value of the collection is linked to it being well documented. And there are more benefits to the thorough documentation of a collection.
Why to document?
The benefits of documenting your collection are manifold. Most importantly, they will become important if you want to have your collection valued, be it for insurance purposes or in the case of a sale or for the benefit of estate building. Iris Handke Head of ARTE Generali, Germany puts it like this: Good documentation is essential in insuring it for various reasons. Certainly, because you need as much information as you can get to evaluate a work of art properly and so have an adequate basis for the insurance. On the other hand, the better you are documented, the easier and faster is the process when it comes to a claim. By the way, if an artwork has been stolen, the chances for recovering it increase considerably.
But if this doesn’t seem relevant for you if you’re in the process of putting a collection together, it might be worth to listen to American Scholar Susan Stewart in her book “On Longing” who puts the deeper meaning of a collection system as follows: ‘The collection is not constructed by its elements; rather, it comes to exist by means of its principle of organization.’ What she means is that as a whole the collection is not only its physical artefacts but the memories, stories, locations, of where the individual works came from and where they are being kept. They communicate the essence of the collection as much as the individual works. Often collection documentation is of vital essence if the collector is not present when decisions on objects have to be made.
In practice you might ask yourself: Are you sure you remember the name of the artist whose work you bought on a trip to Singapore 10 years ago? You thought you would remember the provenance of the amazing 18th Century print you bought in a local auction house but do you really? You are being asked to lend a piece for a museum exhibition, but the institution wants to make sure it is genuine and asks for a copy of the certificate of authenticity as the work isn’t signed. You want to contact the gallery you bought a sculpture from as there is a bit of damage to the work, but you can’t remember when and where you bought it. You had to pack an artwork away for a while and want to put it back up, but you didn’t take any photos and now you can’t find the installation instructions. You think you owned a work by this artist but where could it be?
If any of this sounds only vaguely familiar, then it is probably time to organise yourself and your collection a bit more. Then it is time to devise an inventory of your collection which does not only document the key information of each work but also ensures that all relevant documents belonging to it are in a safe and easily accessible digital or physical place.
What to document?
Making an inventory list needn’t be daunting. There is no right or wrong in the way you document your collection as long as it is documented. This might be handwritten notes in a folder, a simple digital Word or Excel list or, if you have a large collection, you might invest in a collection management software and even hire a curator to manage the details of it all. Anything will be better than not committing to it.
Katrin Stoll, CEO of Neumeister auctions in Munich reports how her auction house received about 60 wooden crates with objects in early 2022. The crates hadn’t been opened for over 60 years and no inventory was available. All they knew was that they came from the former castle of the counts of Württemberg in the former Silesian city of Carlsruhe, now Pokój, in Poland. While the castle itself was destroyed in 1945 many of its chattels were transported to Germany and survived the war. However, most of them were never unpacked and remained property of Count Ferdinand von Württemberg who passed away in 2020. Now over 600 objects were catalogued and are being sold.
But so much vital information about the collection will forever be lost and the challenges of cataloguing a collection in hindsight are numerous. Missing artists or makers, queries about dating, provenance, and documentation of restorations are only a few. It is much better to stay on top of the game and begin an inventory right away.
The most important question is what information needs to be recorded:
Keep this information up to date and add for example exhibition loans or if the work was illustrated or is mentioned somewhere. All this is part of the history of the work and can potentially add value to it.
How to document your collection
If you feel that your collection is big enough or important enough to warrant more than having a safe place for all the documents of your works maybe in an A4 folder or a filing cabinet, then it is worthwhile looking at an online collection management system with safe cloud storage. This allows the collector to easily share works from their collection, maybe for a valuation, or double check if they really need to add this very special object, or if maybe they already have some similar ones in their possession already.
Think carefully how you want to keep the data of your collection system and additional photos and documents. Do you want to link them online with a paper filing system? Then ensure the paperwork is safely stored and can’t be destroyed by fire or flooding. Or do you want to scan all paperwork and ensure everything is filed digitally? Whatever it is you decide to do, ensure the system is transparent to third parties, and accessible for a long period of time. Ensure that you update your digital systems as much as your other digital files and that all paperwork is in safe places on ideally archival paper stock that doesn’t deteriorate.
There are now different systems and services on the market that can help you, ranging from very elaborate and expensive client management systems to easily workable mobile Apps such as the one Arte Generali is offering its clients as part of their insurance services. Artgalleria (https://www.artgalleria.com/) and Artbinder (https://www.artbinder.com/) or (https://www.collectorsystems.com/) are examples of high-end payable products. While CMS systems require often not only fees to be paid, but also time to get to know the system itself, Apps today make it very easy to enter the information and to keep it safe. [https://artegenerali.com/news/discover-arte-generali-app]. All the systems however allow you to have your collection easily at hand, wherever you are. Handke says about the App:
We wanted to find a fast and easy way for our clients to have all the information about their collection in one place. We all live with our smartphones and our app is a convenient way to manage your collection and your insurance at the same time.
An art inventory is essential for your collection. It helps you track your works and creates an aide memoire of your collecting journey, provides important information for your insurance and is a guide should you or someone on your behalf want to sell items from your collection. It is a record of your passions and communicates your collections to others – hopefully in a way that can make sense without the collector’s input. You don’t need to do it all at once, start with one object, one room, one type of collection – step by step.