Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Documenting Your Collections



QUESTION: I’ve been collecting older items for the last 20 years or so. I’ve got several collections of moderately valued antiques, but I have little information on them except my own knowledge. What is the best way to document my collections?

ANSWER: That’s a very good question. Many people enjoy the fun of collecting antiques but don’t take the time to manage their collections. Before you can successfully manage your collections, you have to gather some information on the items in them. And with today’s technology, that’s easier than ever.

Today, more people collect antiques than ever before: Collecting is a personal thing and most people do it for sheer enjoyment. They choose some objects carefully to build or enhance their  collections, acquire others to use everyday, and inherit still others. Each collector treasures each item in their collections, yet many other people don’t understand the appeal or the value of it. But the value of some antiques has been rising steadily over the last decade, so collecting can represent an investment as well. What many collectors lack is a comprehensive record, with supporting documents, of objects they own. As antiques increase in value, it’s important to know about what you own. Even if you don’t think of your prized objects as part of your tangible financial assets, be assured that the IRS, insurance companies, banks, and courts do.

"To document" means to create a record that thoroughly describes an object and which also contains related documents about it, and keep together this record and supporting information on each object.

Some types of documents you already have, or can easily acquire, such as a bill of sale, a note accompanying a gift, a snapshot, a printed description, a program from an exhibit, biographical information on the artist or maker, a description and picture of a similar object perhaps from a newspaper, magazine, or the Internet, a copy of a mark on the object, and others. You can also record the family history related to the object. The objects in specialized  collections— furniture, dolls, quilts, kitchen utensils, guns, tools, even sports and music memorabilia—are prime candidates for documentation. Museums document each object in their collections. So it’s only natural that you should do the same for reasons of insurance, family heritage, preparing for appraisal, certain types of tax benefits, and connoisseurship.

At the very least, you should know what you paid for each object. Some insurance companies require you to put certain valuables, such as jewelry and fine art, on a special schedule. Often they also require an appraisal for the most valuable pieces.

In case of theft, loss or damage by fire, flood or national disasters, you need to prove ownership of any object claimed, and provide descriptions with supporting information in order to be compensated or to help the police identify and recover your stolen valuables. If you cannot do so, you risk loss of compensation in addition to being permanently separated from your treasured object. The more adequate your proof is, the greater the chances that you’ll be satisfied with the compensation you receive. You can spare yourself some of the anguish that comes from experiencing the loss itself, or with an inadequately compensated loss by documenting your objects before the loss occurs. It’s more difficult to document after a loss occurs, and perhaps it cannot be done at all then. You would also be dealing with all the emotions associated with loss of objects, and perhaps your entire home. In your lifetime, expect a possible loss sometime, and prepare for it. Documenting is a great help because it gives you control over the objects in your collections.

Every home has objects of value—whether monetary, sentimental or family-related. Documenting can help you decide which objects you want to give to certain heirs. Recording the provenance and capturing the family history associated with a particular object provides a a more complete picture for yourself and your heirs. Don't neglect to pass on the family stories associated with an object. Don’t depend on those stories being passed down verbally. Write them down. Additionally, family pieces are often carelessly sold or given away because succeeding generations are unaware of their actual or sentimental value. This is often done in the haste to clear a house after a loved one’s death. By documenting, you can assure to some extent that pieces will remain in the family, or at least that someone will make an educated decision before selling or giving away an special object.

If you insure valuable antiques, your insurance company will usually require you to provide them with a professional appraisal. However, not every object in your household needs to be appraised. Documenting can help you decide which objects to have appraised, plus it can also provide the appraiser with valuable information, thus saving time and reducing the cost of the appraisal. The appraisal then becomes part of the documentation on your object.

If you sell an object or give it to a museum or other institution, your documentation can provide detailed information from acquisition to sale or gift, thereby providing you with a factual basis for tax benefits. Museums look upon documentation as a benefit, as it provides valuable family and cultural history about your object for its visitors.

Documenting is a part of connoisseurship, or caring for your collection, thus enhancing your and others' enjoyment of it. You care for your objects by learning how to clean, store, display, or use them, by assuring certain temperatures, or keeping certain objects from direct sunlight. By continuing to learn more about the objects you like to collect, you’ll enhance your enjoyment of your collections.