Kondo your collection

Achieve organizational bliss with modern tips to manage your collection

Image: Courtesy of ARTBnk.

Many of us start the New Year with a new list: a to-do list, an organization list, or a checklist. Organizational empowerment is both trendy and practical, as decluttering-guru Marie Kondo’s popular Netflix series attests.

How does this relate to art? The focus here is not on the objects themselves that spark your collecting “joy,” such as art, furniture, whiskey, or coins. Instead, think of the documentation you have for your collection: the hard copies of documents dispersed among manila files, shoeboxes and file folders that prove the authenticity, provenance and value of your art and collectibles.

There are many components to collection management, and one of them is the preservation and organization of the documents that function as an archival resource for one’s collecting passion. Still, for many collectors, a passion for acquisitions is often inversely matched with an annoyance at documenting the details.

Here’s where the magic can happen. A focused approach—along with the benefits of technology—make it easier than ever for you to get organized.

 

Your documents, on deck

 

“These days, technology makes it much easier for art collectors to keep track of their assets,” notes Annelien Bruins, CEO of Tang Art Advisory, a firm that helps connect collectors with art consultants. How? “A number of cloud-based collection management systems offer varying degrees of complexity in storing the information related to a collector’s art: from provenance records to financial data such as purchase price and insurance value. The only thing you need to think about is adding the data in the correct fields and voila: you can generate reports based on your search queries.”

Before choosing a collection management system, your first step is to gather the documentation which provides the core data you will enter. These documents provide a critical backbone of archival knowledge, are helpful in estate and financial planning and are important for potential curatorial endeavors. Make sure to include:

  • Valuation documentation: Original invoices, appraisals, import/export licenses, conservation reports and information on sales of comparable works by the artists
  • Bibliography: Publication lists, articles, reviews, books and monographs
  • Logistics and legal: Shipping invoices, storage contracts, loan agreements (for exhibition) and consignment agreements (for sale)
  • Insurance: Contracts (policies) and schedules

Having these documents readily available can be invaluable for collectors. They support:

  • The collecting mission
  • Financial obligations
  • Provenance
  • Documenting value

Consider a recent title claim against a private collector of a Marsden Hartley painting. Although the case is still in the courts, the collector was able to produce the invoice from the gallery where she had purchased the artwork in 1993 so as to help demonstrate that her acquisition was done in good faith from a recognized gallery.1

 

Code your collection

 

Remember the Dewey Decimal System? You probably learned in elementary school about the system libraries use to classify newly acquired books with a code based on a relative location and index based on subject. Yet, surprisingly, no such unifying codes exist for museums inventories. Instead, museums across the country each have their own way of assigning acquisitions with a new accession number (also referred to as a registration number).

While many museums use an alpha-numeric system that begins with the acquisition year, many collectors think about their collection in terms of medium, artist, designer, movement or location.

Here are some examples:

CB1D.1996

  • CB: Cecily Brown
  • 1: First acquisition for the collector
  • D: Drawing
  • 1996: Creation year

PP14C.1966

  • PP: Pablo Picasso
  • 14: 14th acquisition
  • C: Ceramic
  • 1966: Creation year

“The key thing to remember when you’re numbering your artworks is that the numbers need to be independent from any variable that can change—like the artwork’s location or order in an inventory list.” Annelien recommends, “Take the time to come up with an inventory numbering system before you start inventorying, and test out your assumptions.”

For example, a painting displayed in a collector’s Southampton property could be known as SH1, yet it would have to be re-numbered if moved to a condo in Chicago. Like a book classified with the Dewey Decimal System, your collected object should ideally be given one inventory number—one that does not change, and is not replaced if the item is removed from your collection.

 

Take it to the cloud

 

With documents and an inventory strategy in hand, you are ready to begin researching the collection management system that best suits your needs.

When collectors first begin acquiring, an excel spreadsheet can seem like a logical way to track items. Yet art objects—whether sculptures, ceramics, furniture or paintings—can have a history that requires more space and dimensions than a spreadsheet.

Rob Steinberg, CEO of ARTBnk, a popular collection management and real-time valuation system, notes, “People in the art industry know what it’s like to drown in those outdated spreadsheets, trying to wrestle collection information into columns and rows. That inspired us to create a collection management system that can harness the possibilities of current technology, and merge them into an interface that makes it simple to load text and visual data, search for artists and even share your portfolio if you like.”

Ask yourself what it is you need from a system. Is it the ability to upload many documents? To get comparable sales data? To research potential artist acquisitions? Or to view your art collection as an investment?

Some systems, like ARTBnk and CollectorIQ, provide current market price data to offer indications of what comparable works may sell for today. Another, Artsystems, offers a museum-caliber approach to data management. All three offer apps so users can manage their collection or retrieve important information while traveling or on the go.

Once you select your system, you’re ready to put it to work. Each system has nuances, but almost all will have you enter your works according to your catalog system, and upload that previously-identified important paperwork. Enjoy the satisfaction of seeing your collection thoughtfully organized.

Then, imagine you meet a museum curator while on a cruise in the Mediterranean. Perhaps you want to make a case for why your Cecily Brown painting or Picasso ceramic should be included in their upcoming show. How nice would it be to pull up the picture of your work while you tell your story? Imagine the possibilities. That sparks joy.

Katja Zigerlig is Vice President of Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).

1D’Arcy, David. “Fake Hartley in Medical Giant’s Collection Points to a Larger Scandal,” The Art Newspaper, Feb 2019, p. 12.
2