Collection Management

Is Your Collection Properly Documented?

by Carol Hagen

Just one look at the devastation wrought by hurricanes Rita and Katrina should be enough to convince collectors of any level of the importance of documenting their collections. Collections management is an ongoing process, the core of which is the creation and maintenance of a thorough inventory and catalog of the pieces. Documentation needs to be kept up-to-date and stored away from home in a safe deposit box. The most efficient way to revise records is to store them in a digital format using collections management software.

Why document your collection?

There are many reasons why a collector should inventory their collection:

  • Proper documentation of pieces minimizes risk, which can lead to lower insurance premiums.
  • If disaster strikes and an insurance claim is needed, thorough documentation speeds the claims process and helps guarantee a fair settlement.
  • When an object is damaged, by water, fire, an accident, or in transport, detailed descriptions and photographs aid in the restoration process.
  • If items are stolen, documentation can assist law enforcement in recovery and provide proof of ownership. Police officers can rarely recover and return objects that have not been photographed and adequately described.
  • Documentation also helps preserve family history and insure items are successfully passed down to future generations.
  • For collectors who have multiple residences or who loan their art, documentation ensures accurate representation in publications and labels, and aids in tracking the location of pieces.

What is Proper Documentation?

A through catalog of a collection should include:

  1. A detailed list of all the pieces – using the Object ID™ standard, which includes complete descriptions and measurements. Object ID is the international standard for describing cultural objects. It has been developed through the collaboration of the museum community, police and customs agencies, the art trade, insurance industry, and appraisers of art and antiques. (Visit to view the Object ID Checklist guidelines on creating a detailed description.)
  2. Very good photographs – detailed images, digital format is the best, making sure to record any unique characteristics of the objects
  3. Documentation on purchase, invoices, provenance, and an appraisal
  4. Condition report – especially important for art being loaned or transported

How Should Documentation be Stored?

Appraisers, curators, and insurers all recommend storing collection documentation in an electronic format such as the Curatorial Management System ( Maintaining an inventory in an electronic format provides for easy updating, printing, duplication, and storage. Electronic files can be stored in multiple locations and can save a tremendous amount of space when dealing with large collections. In addition to inventory capabilities, some curatorial management software packages also offer tracking and sorting, sales and loan agreements, robust reporting, and insurance claims. Having an appraisal stored in electronic format will also save a collector money when seeking a re-evaluation or update on the evaluation.

How Often Should an Inventory be updated?

Collectors should keep inventories up-to-date at all times, but reviewing and updating every six months is a practical goal. For serious collectors, ASA, Accredited Senior Appraiser, Leonard Aronson, suggests a range of three to ten years between full reappraisals of items, depending on the volatility of valuation of the items in the collections and the needs of the collector. Though he does caution that if the location or condition of an object changes, the documentation should be updated immediately.

What Types of Errors are made in Documentation?

The biggest error made in documentation is lack of documentation. Other errors include:

  • Not storing documentation in a secondary safe location (safe deposit box and/or on file with an attorney, financial planner, or insurance agent)
  • Not letting others know where the documentation is or how to access it
  • Not having adequate, detailed photographs and / or descriptions

Julian Radcliffe, Chairman of the Art Loss Register, an international organization that has aided collectors and museums with the recovery of over 3000 stolen items worth over $100 billion dollars, elaborates, “The number of victims who have reasonable photographs or descriptions is improving, but still there are many, perhaps 30%, who cannot log their loss, because the image or description is inadequate. Sometimes owners fail to take measurements or photo the defects, damage, or grain of the wood details, which are essential to matching items such as furniture or those such as sculptures, cast from the same mold, which are not unique without such marks.”

Hire a Professional

If cataloging a collection seems a daunting task, art collectors can hire a Collections Management consultant. Services such as Visnulimited, based in Nashville and Los Angeles, can photograph and document a collection, providing the owner with a complete professional itemized catalog of their pieces in both print and electronic formats. Collections Management services can also put you in touch with a certified appraiser for full valuation needs.


The Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriters Society claims, “An inventory (of a collection) is worth its weight in gold!” A collector, who practices good collections management habits, not only protects their investment for generations to come, but also maximizes the use and enjoyment of their artwork today.

Carol Hagen, Partner and CEO of Visnulimited, is creator of the Curatorial Management System (CMS) software for collections management. CMS software is used by art collectors, appraisers, home and business owners, professional artists, art students, galleries, and museums to catalog collections. In addition to software, Visnu offers professional curatorial services including: collections documentation, digital photography, and data-transfer. You can learn more about CMS by visiting