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What To Look For In A Collection Manager?

(Part two in a three-part series)

By: Spencer W. Stuart

Published: December 6, 2017

The collection manager can be a valuable partner to a collector. But what should the collector be looking for in a collection manager? In this article, we explore the role of the collection manager.

  • Competent And Versatile Researcher

In researching and writing about objects in a collection, the primary objective of the collection manager (CM) is to develop clear links to the overall themes of the collection. This requires an ability to write both to the collector as well as a broad public that may consist of family members, lawyers, gallery staff, and insurance agents. 

Therefore, the collector should look for a CM that is able to write in a succinct fashion and is able to distill the core content of the object’s historical context. An experienced researcher with exposure to items of a similar nature is aware of the dangers of going down a rabbit hole into the minutiae of a topic. It is ideal to have a CM with experience writing to a broad audience about arts related topics and with a strong sense of how particular items relate to a general theme. This will ensure that the collecting fields and keywords used in the entry process will be accurate and effective.

  • Respectful Of Collector’s Demands  

Where organizational systems are involved, there is always the risk of dependency. That is why it is important for the CM to set out clear links between collecting fields and the related items within the collection. One of the most important roles of the CM is to connect the collector to their collections. They have failed if the system comes across as convoluted or inaccessible. The CM must be a good instructor and, whenever possible, develop sessions in which they can help familiarize the collector with their database and its capabilities.

  • Experienced In Financial Side Of Collecting

As the CM begins to develop a systematic inventory of the collection, it is possible that there will be objects that are no longer desired by the collector. For example, it is not uncommon to discover doubles of an object in some types of collections. If the CM provides the extra service of facilitating in the consignment or sale of items, it is important that they have experience in these fields and are able to represent the interests of the collector first.

  • An Important Note

It should be noted that collectors can experience emotional blow back during the exercise of collection management. The CM removes the initial excitement and emotional attachment. Collection management is a process of understanding and order, not an act of judgement.

What Should Be in a Basic Collection Management Project Plan?

  • Selection of appropriate software for collection management
  • Understand information that you want to see in the collection management system.
  • Ensure that the program aligns with the level of involvement the collector requires  
  • Identification of collections

The detail that is added with this phase allows for more precise structures of work flow.

  • Develop organized groupings that will structure the work flow
  • Allow for staging of cataloging and documenting certain collections
  • Identifying regions where outside consultation will be necessary for precise
  • Cataloguing and developing relationships with relevant experts

Cataloguing Of Collections
Key components of complete catalogue entry include:

  • Entry style consistent to the item’s general grouping (i.e. furniture, print, photos), including condition descriptions consistent with the language of the collecting field
  • Succinct historical description of item and its context
  • Provenance (this will merge with financial documentation of the item)
  • Documentation (high res image(s) of the item, scans of any documents accompanying the item – receipts or auction records).
  • Attribution of keywords related to item (enhance connectivity with other items and fields within collection)
  • Organizing of financial records

The objective is to develop a record of when items entered into the collection, what was paid, and comparable prices for similar items in the current market.

The right CM can make an enormous impact on a collection, its accessibility, and its enjoyment.

Spencer W. Stuart holds degrees in art history from both Carleton University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, UK. After graduating with a Masters in the History of Art from the Courtauld, he worked for Bonhams Auctioneers in both Toronto and New York engaging closely with its North American book department. (
(The final article in this series examines what to look for in a collection manager.)

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