Keeping an artwork inventory:
Why, what and how?

Why keep an artwork inventory?

Whether you own a single artwork or hundreds, there are multiple benefits to keeping an up to date inventory of your works. Well kept records can prove invaluable for:

-    Establishing the authenticity of an artwork;
-    Presenting a work for sale or determining its true value;
-    Recording the whereabouts of artworks in storage, in transit or on loan;
-    Identifying works that have been stolen or misplaced;
-    Completing a police report or insurance claim;
-    Determining an equitable division of matrimonial property;
-    Distributing estate assets;
-    Resolving ownership disputes.

Well kept information can help support a higher selling price for an art work, and can minimise the risk of valuable works ending up in garage sales or on garbage heaps. It can also save you - and your insurers, valuers, lawyers and executors - hours of work further down the track, seeking to establish the identity, authenticity, value, ownership or whereabouts of your works.

What details should I keep?

The amount of information you have about your artworks is likely to vary; works acquired from a garage sale may come with no supporting information, while works acquired from a commercial gallery are likely to be accompanied by a sales receipt and related information about the artist or relevant body of work. Any information is better than none, and the more you can gather today, the more useful your records will be in years to come. Below are the main categories to consider when compiling an artwork inventory. You may already have some of the information at hand, while other information may take a little more time to compile and complete.
* Name of artist – While it may be obvious to you now, further down the track you or your family may forget who a work is by, or be unable to decipher the artist’s signature. So of primary importance is recording the artist’s full name. You may also wish to make a note of the artist’s location (eg; “Prakash Patel, Wanganui”), or of special honours the artist has received (eg; “Fran Dibble, QSM”).
* Signature – Is the work signed and, if so, where has the signature been placed? Sometimes signatures are obscured under frames, are placed on the side or reverse of a painting, or are engraved on the underside of a sculpture. Making a note of the location (or absence) of a signature can save time and effort spent looking for one at a later date.

* Date of artwork – The date the work was completed may be inscribed on the work, supplied with your sales receipt, or disclosed in other supporting information. Having the accurate date of an artwork can be useful in establishing the period in which the work was produced, and where it sits in the artist’s oeuvre. If the exact date is unknown, then the work may be identified as “circa” or “around” a given date (eg; “circa 1985”). 

* Category – Make a note of the work’s general category – is it a painting, print, photograph or sculpture?

* Media – Keep a record of the particular artistic media (materials) used in the creation of the work - is the work an oil painting on board, charcoal on handmade paper, or a patinated bronze sculpture?

* Title – Knowing the official title of a work can add to a person’s understanding or enjoyment of the piece. It is also useful to know the correct title if a gallery or auction house later seeks to match your work against an inventory of authenticated works by the artist. If you’ve bestowed your own informal title on a work, then to avoid confusion you should also note that informal title in your inventory (eg; Paul Dibble’s “Who’s Afraid, informally referred to by the owner as Beauty and the Beast”).

* Dimensions – Artworks are measured first by height, then by width, and (in relation to three dimensional works such as sculpture) by depth. A sculpture that is 15 cm high, 10 cm wide and 5 cm deep might be recorded as having dimensions of 15 x 10 x 5 cm. To avoid confusion, use a consistent unit of measurement (eg; meters or centimeters), rather than swapping between different measures. If a work is encased in a Perspex box, glass dome or frame, it can also be useful to record both the size of actual work, and the overall size of encased work. It is acceptable to take measurements that are “approximately” correct - absolute mathematical accuracy is rarely required.

* Image / description – If possible, include at least one good quality photographic image of the work with your records. If this is not possible, then at least include a brief description of the work in your inventory. A simple statement such as “green swirls on black paper” will help distinguish that work from another depicting “young girl in yellow dress”. Make particular note of any distinguishing features or imperfections – this may assist in identifying or establishing your ownership of a work that is stolen or misplaced.

* Edition – Is the work unique, or part of an edition? Photographs, prints and some sculptures are often released as multiples (edition works), and recording the relevant edition number can assist in determining the authenticity and value of the work.

* Acquisition details – Where, when and how did you acquire the work? These details can be important in establishing your ownership rights, and may also assist in proving the authenticity of a contested piece. If a work was gifted to you, note the date the gift was made and who gave you the work.

* Value – Keep a record of the price you paid for the work, and of any appraisals or written valuations you may subsequently obtain. Include with your records the purchase and valuation dates.

* Supporting documentation – Make a note of the existence and location of key supporting documents, particularly sales receipts, appraisals and certificates of authenticity. Other information you may wish to keep include the places the work has been exhibited, critic’s reviews, and publications in which the work is reproduced or referenced – these can all assist in making the work more attractive to a future buyer.

* Condition of artwork –  It is advisable to conduct a physical inspection of your art works each year, to assess whether age or environmental factors may be affecting the work (eg; you may discover that a work in a dark room is becoming mildewed, or that a work in a sunny room is fading). Make note of any damage or conservation repairs. Making regular checks, and keeping good condition records, can be of particular assistance when making insurance claims.

* Location of artwork – If you have works in a storage facility, in transit, on loan, or kept in more than one building, then it is good practice to record in your inventory the place those works are kept. This should avoid any works being forgotten or overlooked by you or your administrators.

What format should I use?

Records can be kept in electronic or hard copy form, according to your preference. Whether your records are kept on handwritten notes, maintained on an Excel spreadsheet program, or stored in a bespoke electronic system, the main consideration is to use a record-keeping format that you feel comfortable using, and can easily update.

ZIMMERMAN has a template inventory form you may wish to use as a guide – the template can be downloaded here

Always keep a back up copy

Often overlooked is the need to keep a copy of your inventory, and important supporting information, in a different location to both your artwork and the original documents. If your artwork or original documentation is lost for any reason, then you will still be able to refer to the back up. For particularly valuable works, you may wish to lodge details with your insurance company and lawyer.


For further information contact ZIMMERMAN - www.zimmerman.co.nz / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.