6.2 min readBy Published On: August 16th, 2011Categories: Arts and Entertainment, Lifestyle0 Comments on Got Art?

How to keep track of your art by Kathleen Bitetti

A simple guide to organizing your art collection and art collecting ethics every art collector should practice

The visual art world is usually on a hiatus in August- as most of the contemporary art galleries and small art spaces are either closed or have very limited programming this month (unless they are located in a place where people go for August vacations!). So it makes it a good time to write about how to keep track of your art collection and some basic ethics of art collecting.

I suggest keeping hard copy files of information you acquire about your art work. If your art collection increases in number (over 20), you may want to create a computer data base of the work in your collection. I just recently created my own data base and I am now faced with cataloging well over 100 works of art in my art collection (not counting any of my own art work!). So I can honestly say-do not to procrastinate on keeping track of your art collection.

Keep a receipt

When you buy a work of art, ask the artist or the place you are purchasing the art from for a “Receipt/Bill  of Sale”. This is important for several reasons: 1)  insurance purposes to protect the work if it gets damaged or even stolen. 2) if you ever decide to sell it or donate to a collecting institution (i.e. museum or local library, university etc.), you will have the information to  better determine the fair market value of the work for a tax deduction on your income taxes. 3) and most importantly, to help you remember the works and artists in your collection!

Make sure the “Receipt/Bill of a Sale” has the date the work was purchased, has the name of the artist, the title of the work, the date the work was completed, how much the work was sold for, what the work’s medium is (acrylic painting, collage, ceramic sculpture, etc.) and the dimensions of the work. The “Receipt/Bill of a Sale” is extremely critical if the work of art is not signed by the artist to prove who the work was created by. Not all artists sign their work or can sign the art work due to the kind of material(s) it is made out of.

Get the scoop on the artist

Also ask for information about the artist for your files such as an artist statement, any thing written about the work or the show the work was in, the artist’s resume and any press articles on the artist. If you are buying directly from an artist, get their contact information and make sure they have your contact information. If you are buying from a gallery, make sure the gallery tells the artist you have bought their work. It is the law in Massachusetts that galleries give the contact information  of those who bought an artist’s artwork to the artist or their estate.*

Why does an artist and by extension their estate/heir(s), need to know who has their art work? It is important for the artist’s legacy. For example, the artist may have a retrospective of their art career and the work in your collection may be needed to be loaned for the exhibition and/or an art historian may need to access to the work for a book or article they are writing about the artist. That is why when you go to a museum exhibition or look at a catalog of an art show, you will often see the following on art work’s label: On loan from a private collection. It is entirely up to the art collector if they want to loan their art work and if they do loan the work, if they want their name listed on the label.
Art Collecting Ethics- the basics

Don’t detroy it

It is never considered ethical or morally okay to destroy a work of art on purpose (note artists can destroy their own work if they so chose). Accidents do happen and there are people who specialize in restoring damaged art. Any art work you buy, you are free to resell it, give it away or donate it as you see fit. However, if an artist gives you art as a gift, and at some point you do not want it anymore (ie you are moving and can’t store it, etc.), and if the artist is still living, ethically and morally you should ask the artist if they want the piece back.

If the artist does not want the piece back, you can do one of the following things:

Ask the artist if they have any suggestions on what they wish you to do with the work. ii) You can give it to someone else as a gift.  iii) You can consider donating it to a collecting cultural organization (like a museum or historical society or other non profit organization that will care for it). iv) You can sell it (yourself, through art dealer or auction house). v) You could donate it to a charity auction.

If the artist is no longer living you could do the following:

  • You could track down their heirs to see if they want the work back 
  • You can give it to someone else as a gift.
  • You can consider donating it to a collecting cultural organization (like a museum or historical society).
  • You can sell it (yourself, through art dealer or auction house).
  • You could donate it to a charity auction.

Be aware if you donate the work to a charity auction or non profit organization, you might be entitled to a tax deduction. I would suggest asking with the non profit/charity  you are donating it to and your accountant/tax preparer if you can take a tax deduction.

Copywright remains with the artist

It is very important to understand that when you are given or buy a piece of contemporary art work, you did not buy and do not own the copyright to the work. Copyright remains with the artist or with the estate of the artist. This means you can’t make postcards of the work or any other products legally (or morally). The artist or their estate can only do that. If you wish to use an image of the work in that manner, you must get written permission from the copyright holder and you will probably have to pay do so. Copyright is for the artist’s lifetime and then their heirs get seventy years of copyright ownership. After those seventy years are up the entity that physically owns the work is in control of the copyright of the work. You can and should take images of the works in your art collection for your personal records and for insurance purposes. It is essential to have these images in case you need to get the art work restored (if gets damaged) or if it gets stolen.

* Link to the Massachusetts Consignment of Fine Art Law:

© 2011 Kathleen Bitetti/ www.kathleenbitetti.com
Kathleen Bitetti is a practicing visual artist, a curator/art administrator and a public policy and advocacy expert based in South Boston.

Image used in this article:

Mia Brownell, Still Life with Bird and Bees, 2001 oil on canvas -10″x10″  Private Collection of Kathleen Bitetti- Photo credit: Martin Kruck

from more info on the artist http://www.miabrownell.com/