How To Manage Your Collection

I am a member of several online groups relating to glass, pottery, and porcelain. I enjoy looking at other people’s collections, admiring rarities, and learning about more unusual pieces. Recently, a member posted a question asking others how they document their collections; after all, some of these people have thousands of pieces. I was astonished by how few people did keep a record of their acquisitions; of those that did, many kept old-fashioned hand-written ledgers. A considerable number of those who responded seemed unsure about how to set up a system on their computer that would assist them in maintaining their collectibles.

I have been managing over half a dozen databases and spreadsheets for Legacy Antiques for over 12 years now. Although it would not traditionally be considered a ‘collection’, I feel that I may be able to offer some guidance relating to documenting your valuables and the benefits surrounding it.

Why do I need to document my collection?

You don’t, but you should. There are a few reasons it is beneficial to catalogue your possessions. I have detailed these below:

  1. Efficiency. If your collection is so vast that much of it is packed away, digitally archiving it is a good way to ensure you can ‘see’ everything you have, even if you can’t lay your hands on a piece straight away. This saves time and money as you can avoid spending extra on pieces you already own but have forgotten about.
  2. Insurance. Many insurance companies will require in-depth information when considering a claim for any items, including receipts, photographs, value, proof of ownership, etc. By keeping a digital log of your pieces you are always prepared for those ‘worst case scenarios’.
  3. Proof of ownership. This is, in my opinion, the most important reason for cataloguing your property. Gadgets, such as TVs and smartphones, come with unique serial numbers, which can be registered on sites such as Immobilise to ensure a swift return if the item is recovered by the police after a theft. It is far more complicated if you are dealing with antiques and collectibles, but a database with detailed accounts of each piece would be hard to dispute if ownership was contested.
  4. Selling. Keeping detailed records of your collection will prove invaluable should you decide to sell some or all of it. Any provenance or details relating to a piece can be readily accessed and will not only make selling easier but may add value to your items.

What can I catalogue?

You can catalogue anything! Whether you collect 19th-century ceramicsWhitefriars glass, vinyl, or retro computer games, you can (and should) catalogue it all. Even if it is not a collection, it is advisable to catalogue your home contents, particularly if you have expensive items that are at a considerable risk of theft.

What information should I include?

More detail from the beginning will mean easier searching and therefore less work overall. I have compiled a list of potential headings to include, and how to use them with the help of a demo product.

  1. Reference number. A reference number is especially important when dealing with lots of comparable items. This way you can ensure that each piece is easily distinguishable, and there will be no ‘mix-ups’. You will also need a numbering system on your database as they require a ‘product key’; a unique number for each data entry. It is also much easier to search for a reference number on a database, than a string of words.
  2. Manufacturer / Artist. If you can accurately attribute your items, then this is an important detail. For example, classic 19th-century transferware patterns have the same style name, i.e. ‘Willow’, but were produced by numerous factories.
  3. Pattern name or style. This is another high-ranking attribute, as many people collect a certain style, like Art Deco, or a pattern, like ‘Willow‘.
  4. Date or Age. This information cannot always be ascertained, and sometimes you may have to make an educated guess. For example, a piece of stemware may have been in production for fifty years and the mark may narrow it down to two decades, so you may have to say, for example, 1970s to 1980s. Alternatively, some items may have an exact date of manufacture, perhaps using the diamond registration mark or being signed. This information, if accurate, is very useful in distinguishing between original and reproduction pieces.
  5. Colour. Many products come in a variety of colourways. Some collectors like to acquire all known colourways of a certain shape or style; for example, Wedgwood ‘Jasperware‘ is frequently seen as the classic blue and white, but it is possible to find green and white, burgundy and white, pink and white, and navy and white.
  6. Type of product. If you collect a certain pattern or style, it may be useful to note down what type of product it is. If you only collect cups, then this may not be necessary, but if you collect items decorated with, for example, the ‘Greek Key‘ pattern, you may want to document whether it is a glass, a ceramic bowl, or even a chair! It is helpful to distinguish what type of material has been used to make a piece. Items made from lead crystal are typically more valuable than their non-lead counterparts.
  7. Date of acquisition. This is quite useful in determining how long you’ve owned a certain piece, should that ever be called into question. It is also interesting to detail how long you’ve been collecting, and how your buying may have changed over time.
  8. Cost. It is undoubtedly sensible to keep digitised copies of your receipts, that you can then link to each item in your database. This backs up various other details on the database (such as the date of acquisition), but more importantly, offers hard proof of ownership. Obviously, in some cases, you may not have a receipt for something, if you’ve bought it at a car boot sale or from a private individual, for example. It is then worth making a note of where you bought it, the date, and how much you may have paid.
  9. Identifying features/damage. A comprehensive account of damage or imperfections is invaluable. These flaws are unique to a piece and will assist in distinguishing one piece from another. You can make notes of these in the table, but it is best to accompany these with close-up photographs.
  10. Weight. This detail is commonly assessed when determining the authenticity or age of a product. Often, lighter pieces can represent later production times, or, in some cases, fakes or replicas. A good example of this would be Italian Bitossi ceramic animals, predominantly horses. Older horses are heavier, with the larger size weighing in at a couple of kilos. Later pieces tend to be lighter due to a change in production method. As companies try to cut costs over time due to the inflated prices of materials, you will find that pieces will become lighter and may even feel ‘cheaper’.

Another point to make with weight is that handmade items often differ slightly across a batch. This offers a unique detail that is hard to dispute. It is worth investing in good digital scales if you feel this is an important attribute to record for your collection.

  1. Photographs. Photographs can tell you so much more than words can describe. It is vital to take detailed images of your items, with close-up shots of any distinguishing features, be they flaws, back stamps, engraved marks, or even damage. They all contribute to the overall ‘view’ of the piece and will corroborate other data you’ve input.
  2. Dimensions. Dimensions can vary between pieces from the same range; this is especially true of handmade objects. For example, I once bought a pair of Dartington Crystal hock wine glasses in their original box, only to discover that there was a 5mm difference in height between the two. This discrepancy is due to inadequate quality control but shows the potential differences you can encounter with handmade pieces. Measurements are also a great indicator of authenticity; commonly faked pieces, such as Whitefriars Glass and SylvaC will often be smaller all over due to replica moulds. It may be worth adding a ‘scale’ into your photographs; I prefer the traditional black and white kind, but a universally known object like a can of Coke can help give a sense of size if you can’t see it in the flesh.
  3. Description / Other Notes. Although you may have detailed many points in other parts of your database, it is worth having a ‘description’ or ‘notes’ section. It may be helpful to add details of damage, positioning of marks or signatures (if they’re hard to find) and any other valuable information.
  4. Market value. This is a more complicated point and will certainly fluctuate over time. If you have had items professionally appraised and valued, then this can be very useful to add in (a digitised copy of original documentation is best) to assist with selling or claiming on insurance.
  5. Location / Box Number. If you’re dealing with an ample collection, where many pieces are not on display, adding the location information is vital. After all, it’s no good to set up an archive if you can’t find it! At Legacy Antiques, every item is assigned and labelled with a stock reference number and is packed into a numbered stock box. This makes it incredibly easy to find pieces.

It’s never too late to start cataloguing your collection. If you’re just starting, it is a terrific way of learning about your pieces and studying them in greater detail. It will also get you into good habits, and, in time, will become a normal part of the collecting experience.

To more seasoned collectors, it is an effective way of reviewing what you have, and perhaps why you have it. Our knowledge and tastes change over time, and what we bought 10 years ago may have long since been surpassed in quality by more educated purchases. It is also an excellent opportunity to revisit and reorganise your acquisitions.

In recent years, great advances have been made in online digital or ‘cloud’ storage; Google Drive and Dropbox are just a couple of examples. With tablets and smartphones, you can now take your database out and about with you and access it remotely. This can prove very useful if you’re out buying more and want to avoid duplicates!

I have produced a downloadable Google Spreadsheet, which is ready to be used to start cataloguing your collection. You can view it here. It includes a ‘demo’ product to illustrate how each category can be used. Once downloaded, you will be able to edit it as you see fit.

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