6 Essential Tips for Managing Your Collection

"Tribuna of the Uffizi" by Johann Zoffany, c. 1772-78, in the Royal Collection, Windsor Castle. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Purchasing a work of art for your collection is just the beginning of your journey. Once you’ve acquired an object, an immense amount of care goes into understanding its place in your collection and its value in the market.

We are pleased to present a new series of blog posts on collection management in collaboration with AXA ART, the world’s leading specialty fine art and collectibles insurer. In addition to insurance, AXA ART offers its clients across the Americas, Asia, and Europe advice on loss prevention.

“A first step in collection management is preparing and maintaining an inventory of all of the works in your collection. I can think of at least three compelling reasons to do this: first, to simply remember the full process and details of acquiring each work; second, to facilitate the basis of a future sale, and third, to document what you have in the case of a loss. This is the three-legged stool of step one,” says Vivian Ebersman, Director Art Expertise at AXA Art Americas Corporation.

Whether you’ve been collecting for years or have just purchased your first piece, these six essential tips will help you organize and maintain your collection.

1. Record and organize relevant information.

Documenting the history and condition of your collection is essential. In a spreadsheet, database, or binder, create and routinely update separate files for each work. These records are essential for insurance and de-acquisition purposes. Even if you sell or trade works, you should keep the records to track your collection’s evolution.

Important information to record:

  • Purchase invoice with date and seller information
  • Images of the work installed and close-ups from several angles (ex. the front and back of a painting)
  • Artist/maker and their active dates
  • Title, date of work, and, if needed, a description of subject matter
  • Materials
  • Dimensions
  • Provenance: It is paramount to have a full record of previous private or institutional collections or galleries to which your work belonged.
  • Distinguishing features or inscriptions such as stamps, labels, inventory numbers, signatures, or dedications sometimes at the back of the painting or on the base of a sculpture. These unique identifiers may affect the value of your work and/or help you to establish provenance.
  • Condition report: Record changes to the surface of the work including but not limited to discoloration, striations, or chips in the frame on an annual basis.
  • Bibliography: Is the work cited in the artist’s catalogue raisonné? Does it appear in other scholarly articles?
  • Exhibition history: If available, include copies of catalogues from exhibitions.
  • Display: Is the frame original? Who mounted it and how is it secured?
  • Location: This is especially important if you store artwork outside your home or have more than one residence.

2. Research artists in your collection.

Whether you’re collecting around a theme or simply purchasing works you like to look at, it’s important to know each work individually. To do so, research the artist’s background and stylistic development. Visit exhibitions that showcase the artists that you collect. Save reviews of their shows from newspapers, magazines, or art news websites.

Understanding an artist’s development and sources of inspiration will help place each work in a larger cultural context. It may inform later purchases or refine your interest in a certain collecting category. It also helps you to understand your work’s place in the market for an artist or genre.

3. Track the success of similar works in the market.

Keeping abreast of market conditions will guide decisions about insurance, gifting, and estate planning. Information from auction catalogues and online auction databases will help you to understand whether values are rising, falling, or remaining stable.

4. Confer with professionals.

To fully understand the value of your pieces, consult an appraiser every five or so years. When valuing your artwork with a professional, specify whether you need the fair market value or the replacement value. The fair market value is equivalent to the price that may be achieved at auction and is the basis for taxes, gifts, and donation valuation. The replacement value is used for insurance purposes. It is likely to be higher than the fair market value and is the equivalent of an object’s retail price.

5. Use digital tools.

Collecting is supported by an increasing number of online and mobile tools. Mobile apps for art lovers are becoming more popular and more sophisticated, and a large subset are geared towards growing and maintaining a collection. As a fine art insurer, AXA Art has an online option for internet-savvy emerging collectors to purchase insurance for their collection online.

6. Store your works properly, and don’t be fooled by the biggest misconception.

Lastly, Vivian Ebersman reminds collectors:

  1. Balance aesthetics of the display with security. Fully consider the light – make sure the work is not in direct sunlight which can cause damage.
  2. Whether in-home or off-site in a storage facility, art is best stored in a climate controlled space where the works will be safe. Avoid storing anything valuable in basements or attics. Jewelry and small valuables are best stored in a safe or vault.
  3. One big misconception is that collection management is only for large collections. Even collectors just starting out will benefit from organization.

Collecting can be a life-long journey, a labor of love, and sometimes produces return on investment. Following these guidelines can ensure that the collection you build remains properly recorded and organized.