What should I know about a painting in my collection?

Basic record

A basic record of a painting will include most of the following pieces of information. Be systematic in recording them. Both the structure of the data and the terminology used should follow an established system (for more details see our section on reference sources and links).

  • Unique identity number. This is a number uniquely linked to a single work of art. Works in several parts, such a triptych or a canvas painted on both sides, can have a suffix added to their number (e.g. MUS1234a). In many collections the number includes the year of acquisition (e.g. GVM-1937-944). This number should be securely attached or written on the object itself in a position that is not visible and using materials and will not harm the painting – check with a specialist.
  • Artist(s). The names and life dates of the artist or, on some cases, artists, recorded in a format to facilitate searching, e.g. family name/surname first. The format and spelling of a name should follow an established authority. The Getty’s Union List of Artists’ Names (ULAN, http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/ulan/) is popular, but does not include every regional artist.
  • Title. This is usually the title given by the artist (if known). If the title is unknown, a new title should be descriptive to help identify the painting, e.g. Stormy Landscape with a Ruined Castle, rather than just Landscape. Record any previous and alternative titles and the reasons for changes in title.
  • Production date. This may be single year, if known, or a period in which the painting may have been produced. In the latter case it is most useful to record two dates, an earliest possible and a latest possible date, so production dates can be searched.
  • Acquisition method. Recording how, when and from whom the painting was acquired by the collection is essential for legal and research reasons. Record any other third party interests, such as grant-aid.
  • Materials. This will consist of at least two parts, one describing the medium (e.g. oil) and one the support (i.e. canvas).
  • Size. This is usually the maximum size of the support, always height first then width. The frame size should be recorded separately.
  • Photographic and copyright records. Images, negative numbers, digital image file numbers, photographer, date taken, copyright in both the painting itself and the images.
  • Location. Keep an up-to-date record of the location of the painting and of previous movements and locations.

Full record

A more comprehensive catalogue record will also contain at least the following additional information:

  • Inscriptions. This would include signatures, dates and other information on the front or back of the painting. It should be made clear whether these are considered to be by the artist (‘autograph’) or not.  
  • Provenance. This is the history of ownership of the painting. Researching and recording the history of a painting can be crucial to establishing its authenticity and can help identify its attribution and subject. Provenance research may also be necessary to provide evidence of legal ownership, e.g. when a painting is the subject of restitution claims.
  • Exhibition history. This records where and when the painting has been displayed and usually only relates to temporary exhibitions. It should include the title of the exhibition, location, dates and catalogue numbers, if a catalogue has been published.
  • Publications. This is a list of reference books, exhibition catalogues and articles that describe, mention or illustrate the painting. The references should be recorded in a consistent format and should include author, title, date of publication, publisher, page reference and, where applicable, volume number, catalogue number and image number.
  • Conservation. This is a summary of conservation treatments the painting has received with dates and reference to the detailed conservation reports. Conservation assessments or treatments may reveal more information about the painting’s medium and support which may be added to the materials part of the record (see above).
  • Descriptive text. A written description of the content of the painting is useful because it can include information that isn’t obvious from a photograph, e.g. the names of the characters in a history painting. Label other descriptive and interpretative texts in a catalogue record for future reference. Descriptive text can contain keywords or a list of searchable keywords analysing the content can added.
  • Frame. This should include the size, materials and style of the frame and, if known, its age, names of maker/designer and whether it is original to the painting.
  • Valuations. As a minimum this should include the value, valuer and date of the valuation. It can be helpful to note the reason for the valuation, e.g. insurance review or loan, as well as the rationale for the valuation, e.g. comparable auction result. This and other information can of course be kept confidential.
  • Other notes. Notes might include information about changes in attribution, experts’ opinions, labels and other marks on the back of a painting, information about the donor or previous owners, media coverage, etc.

Physical records

Catalogue information can be recorded in several forms.

  • A bound manual register, sometimes called a stockbook or accessions register is the basic legal record of your collection. All entries should be written in permanent ink and only by authorised staff. It should be kept in a safe place, ideally a fireproof cabinet and a copy should be stored separately. As a minimum each entry should include the painting’s unique identity number, its title, artist, date of production, the acquisition method, e.g. gift, acquisition source, donor’s name and address, plus current value if known.
  • A painting file for each painting, which may contain primary documents, such as letters from the artist or donor, and secondary records, such as letters from the public, the opinions of experts, loan requests, conservation reports, comparative photographs, etc., is built up over time.
  • A computerised catalogue, varying in sophistication from a simple spreadsheet to an expensive collections management system including collections database, loans database, web publishing module, etc., helps manage all this complex information. Remember to keep it backed up!