Keeping Tabs on an Art Collection, Part II

As I mentioned yesterday, seeing the “tracking numbers” painted on the back of sculptures at the Hermitage left me with a few questions about the practice of ID’ing art, and associate registrar Tiffany Shea has lent her insight on the topic. As she told me, there are many methods of marking art depending upon the medium, the advances in marking technologies, and the procedures for each institution. All works are marked where they would be least seen when viewing the work straight on. (Of course, there’s no accounting for people like me who circle sculptures, then snap pictures of the back of them.) A few recordkeeping guidelines:

  1. 2-D works on paper are usually marked with a soft pencil on the back of the work.
  2. Paintings have a sticker affixed to the backside of the frame.
  3. Textile works have their number written on a piece of cloth which is then sewn on to its underside (if it is a carpet, for example) or its inside (like the inside of a sleeve or collar).
  4. The last method of marking involves writing the object number with an archival pen onto a transparent protective barrier that is painted onto the art. Small 3-D works like chairs and vases will have their number written on the bottom or underside of the work.



Larger or heavier works which can’t be lifted or tilted may be marked on the back side of the work at the bottom edge. Of course some objects are intended to be viewed from all sides or are made of clear or sensitive materials, so marking these works would not be beneficial to their aesthetics or preservation. In those cases, a paper tag with the object’s number can be tied to the work by string (very old school!) or, if the work is too small or unusual to mark successfully, the bin in which the artwork is stored is labeled. Another option is taking a photograph of a small object, like the earrings below, which is placed in a small baggie with the object’s number on it.


Tiffany took me into a couple of storage areas for the photographs above but the most interesting to me was certainly seeing the back of a painting. I’ll share that experience with you tomorrow.

Allison Agsten

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