Art Collection Management: The Action Backstage

Apr 08, 2016

Behind the scenes of every smart art collection—from those of the grandest museums to those of novice collectors with a few paintings—collection management fuels the passion. From authentication and provenance reports to storage and insurance documentation, art collectors can become overwhelmed by paperwork. It can hamper new acquisitions, hold up sales, undermine donations or simply take the fun out of collecting. The backstage work of collection management holds it all together, allowing you to enjoy your art while growing your collection.

Inventory as Necessity

All collections require the baseline of a proper inventory, and pulling together the information may be a challenge. You might find yourself chasing down a receipt from the gallery where your grandfather bought a painting decades ago or fumbling through your old files in search of appraisal information, old insurance policies and other important documents. Collection management is about organizing this chaotic selection of art “stuff” into an inventory - an organized compendium of artwork descriptions, sales receipts, provenance, consignment agreements, conservator reports, etc.

Celine Mo, of the Victori + Mo Gallery in Brooklyn, is scrupulous about collection management for both her gallery and her personal collection:

“It’s imperative to keep all your records organized because provenance is an essential component that will factor into the future value of a piece.”

The first step is to determine how to create your inventory. You may elect to create the inventory yourself, supported by collection management software tools. Or, you may choose to create an inventory under the supervision of a collection management specialist, a professional capable of assessing the quality and the veracity of the information gathered for the inventory and able to advise on core collecting questions, such as purchase decisions and damage prevention.

There’s an App for That: Collection Management Software

Art collectors with a “do it yourself” (DIY) plan for collection management should be wary of repurposing standard spreadsheet programs for their collection inventory. Collection management software that is specifically designed for art collections are significantly better and more efficient, so it is worthwhile to investigate the specialized options available before beginning the arduous task of entering your data.

Katie Stille, of Managed Artwork, describes the advantages of using an art-centric software:

“Managing a collection has many moving pieces, commissions, consignors, locations, provenance, media, artist information, buyer details, sale information and so much more. Tracking these details in a spreadsheet or standard inventory system can be tedious and messy. We constantly hear from our clients that they use Artwork Manager™ because it is built specifically for the unique needs of the art world.”

When choosing the right program, shop with your objectives in mind. Do you want to display your art on a website? Do you require a cloud-based data storage system? Are you likely to need IT customer service? What volume of content will you require? What about security?

Eric Kahan, of Collector Systems, emphasizes data storage security and the reliability of the company:

“Choose a company based on the recommendations of people that have used the software and have properly vetted the company for support, security, and privacy. Ask and understand how the company keeps your information secure and private; or, if in-house, how the user can do the same. Consider how the software and data can be moved to another system, and disaster preparedness plans for peace of mind.”

Collection Management Specialists —The Devil is in the Details

Professional collection management specialists bring art business experience and expertise to their clients, with services that go beyond setting up and maintaining an inventory.

Maura Kehoe Collins, of Artiphile, has a wealth of knowledge in the world of art collecting. She describes the services offered by a detail-oriented professional collection manager as a “bespoke” experience:

“The programs are great and I use them. They are game changers, but they are just placeholders for information, without the expertise in sorting and analyzing that is provided by a professional. A collection manager offers more than inputting data. It takes experience to see if something is missing or if there are errors in the chain of provenance. Plenty of times, I’ve looked at an invoice for a client, finding that it is not for the right object! It’s got the wrong title or the wrong dimensions. Collection managers look at all the details in your collection and paperwork.”

Careful scrutiny of records and research skills are key for straightening out complicated, incomplete or erroneous collection paperwork. More than the scale or complexity of a collection, it is the wide variety of problems raised by compiling an accurate inventory that leads many serious collectors to seek out a professional over a DIY program.

Elisabeth Hahn, an art advisor and collection management consultant, says that the programs are good tools for organizing information, but have obvious limitations:

“If you have fourteen items that are valuable, or that you are afraid your children will squabble over after your death, it can be very important to hire a collections specialist to guide you through the proper information you need to have, and recommend lawyers, trust specialists, etc. to help ensure easy succession. It can’t hurt to have an art world expert review what you have, how and whether you are keeping current of insurance valuations, have proper title insurance when appropriate, taking proper care of the works, etc. I can’t tell you how many people’s homes I’ve walked into over the years, only to see their prints hanging in acidic mats, or their insurance valuations over 20 years old. Many times people have things they don’t even realize have gone up in value.”

Maura Kehoe Collins emphasizes stewardship and passion as the motivations that drive her clients. Her advice enhances their negotiating power and offers them access to expert consultants in a range of fields. The inventory is just the start of the relationship and conversations that range from framing needs and appraisals to insurance and the physical care of objects.

Finding the Right Manager for Your Collection

A myriad of factors go into a good match of collection manager and collector. It’s important to check credentials, training and references. Managers come from a variety of art backgrounds so seek out the person with a specialization in your area of art interest. Be clear about your needs, expectations, timing and payment arrangements. Trust and comfort are critical as managers will be delving into otherwise private papers and visiting your home.

It’s Up to You

Every collector should put into motion a collection management plan. Some collectors opt to hireprofessional managers, some DIY with specialized software, while others use a mix of expert consultation and DIY data input. Whatever path you choose—you’ll benefit from a serious look at the backstage view of your collection.

To discover collection management specialists and collection management software providers, visit The Clarion List, the leading directory of art service providers with ratings & reviews: