Most collectors know that museums have registrars who meticulously manage their collections. In fact, there is not an accredited museum in the US that does not have a registrar on staff. It is less well known that many registrars operate independently. Of the approximately 1,600 members of the Registrar's Committee of the American Association of Museums, fully 11% identify themselves as independent professionals.
The Latin root for “registrar” is ”regesta” meaning “things recorded,” and, yes, a registrar records things. A professional registrar, however, is far more than a scribe and offers a unique skill set: knowledge of the history of art and artifacts, efficient management and logistical skills, connections to professionals in affiliated fields, and discretion. Across the country independent registrars are assisting private collectors with storage, identification, conservation, framing, insurance and the many other details inherent in owning and displaying large collections of works of art, antiques and collectibles.
In today's complex art world, the services of a registrar fall under the umbrella of management, and the title ‘Registrar’ is often used interchangeably with the title ‘Collection Manager.’ Aside from recording data (although many of the following tasks entail recording) a registrar or collection manager may manage safe, secure, climate controlled storage, identify objects in need of conservation or framing, and prepare documents, condition reports and lists for appraisers and fine arts insurance brokers. An experienced registrar will have a circle of reliable conservators, insurance brokers, appraisers, framers, art handlers, specialized equipment vendors, and sources for archival materials.
Art at home or on the move
Anyone with a collection large enough that it fills every nook and cranny, or one that is too large to be displayed in its entirety, understands the complexity of management. A collector with multiple homes faces even more tasks keeping track of where everything is and that it is safely stored. Some collectors with multiple homes like to change things up a bit—maybe shift things to make room for a new acquisition;, move the collection to the Florida residence for the winter; and move it back North out of harm’s way for hurricane season; maybe send things to a grown child’s new house; or rotate some objects that are vulnerable to light.
Besides the convenience of knowing exactly where everything is, inventory tracking is important when disaster strikes. In order to safely pack and move art objects and to assure that the transit and the locations are covered by insurance, it is important that someone knowledgeable in proper packing and transit logistics be available to oversee the process. Your registrar is that person. A registrar can save you time and concerns about your collection. Information will be at his or her fingertips when you want it. A registrar will inventory your collection and accurately record “boilerplate” information about every object: what it is, the title or name, the artist or maker, date, medium, dimensions, where it is signed and dated, and if it is editioned and the edition number.
Using research skills and existing resources such as invoices, auction catalogs, exhibition catalogs, resources on the Internet, etc., a registrar can ferret out a lot of information about objects in your collection. This additional information is retained as part of the documentation of your collection—in your files, as well as in your database. Rich accurate, documentation will enhance the value of individual objects in the collection.
Some of this additional research would include answers to the following questions:
• Where was it purchased, when and for how much?
• Is the original invoice on file?
• Who owned it previously? Was it inherited?
• How did the original owner come by it?
• What is known about the maker or artist?
• Has it been appraised? When, by whom and at what valuation (insurance, market, replacement)?
• Has the object been published? Where, and by whom?
• Has it been included in any exhibitions? When, where, curated by whom?
• Where is it now?
• When was it sold, for how much?
• Does it have any unique identifying numbers from previous owners? (museums call these “accession” numbers)
Databases and Paper Records
The registrar will create files for documents having to do with legal transactions and assure that there is an image of every object in the collection. Collections Management software packages now proliferate, and it has been years since any registrar used a ledger book—or even a card file—to document acquisition, valuation, location, or condition. However registrars understand that a ledger book or a card file itself has become an historical document and therefore still a valuable resource to be retained. Nevertheless, your registrar will be conversant with any number of software programs and aps, on a Mac, a PC or in the cloud.
A registrar can recommend a comprehensive database tailored to your collection in which to record all of the above data and more. Recommending the right database for your collection is a little like understanding the proper size and type drill bit needed for a particular job, be it drilling into stone or attaching a hook to the reverse of an antique frame.
What’s in a contract and what isn’t?
Anyone who buys, sells or lends with any frequency will find a registrar to be essential. A registrar reads and understands contracts. She or he knows how to read between the lines on a loan request form in order to advise on what should—but may not be—in the agreement. A registrar knows the safest method for transit and is familiar with reputable forwarding companies around the world. She can coordinate the entire loan process, advise on proper packing, and coordinate, approve or make all logistical arrangements. In addition, she can assure that the borrower will meet all related costs.
A registrar will handle (and file) the often-voluminous correspondence regard loan requests, vetting the borrowers facility report for security, proper handling, shipping, and insurance coverage.
An experienced registrar is familiar with purchase agreements and knows what should be included—especially important for time-based media and installations. Auction house contracts, gallery consignment agreements, artists’ copyright management agreements, work for hire contracts with photographers, fine arts insurance policy coverage (whether blanket or scheduled) including important policy clauses such as “pairs and sets,” “buy back,” and deductibles—these will all be familiar territory for your registrar.
What is it worth?
For insurance purposes, a registrar will keep a record of appraisals, can alert the collector of current auction results and will know what information needs to be supplied to obtain an appraisal.
Full-time? Part-time? Contract? Fees?
Depending on the size of the collection and the amount of activity it sees, even if a collection is spread out over several locations or includes as many as 2,000 objects, the registrar for a private collection is not usually a full time job.
Where do experienced registrars come from? Not like Venus rising from the ocean…. An experienced registrar’s credentials will include relevant education and training in collections management, art history, material culture, library science or other related fields. Work experience and references are important, as is keeping current in the field through memberships and participation in related professional organizations. If the resume includes registrarial work at a museum, you will likely find a registrar with good training in standards of care and documentation. A seasoned registrar will be able to offer a menu of services and a contract that spells out the project or job, the amount of time estimated to complete a project (or a description of ongoing services), a fee schedule, and a warrantee.
A contracted independent registrar will generally manage the collections of a few select
long-term clients. Much like the confidentiality required in a museum setting, collectors can rely upon their registrars for confidentiality and maintenance of completely discrete databases, records, etc.. Registrars are masters at juggling—thus they may also take on short-term projects, such as inventories, or management of a museum exhibition. An independent registrar may bill by the project, but for ongoing collection management will more often bill by the hour. Depending upon the skills of the individual, the geographical location of the collection and the nature of the collector’s requirements, the hourly rate will differ accordingly. Everything is negotiable.
Where do you find an independent registrar?
Most independent registrars are found by word of mouth—they are recommended or referred by insurance underwriters, insurance brokers, accountants, attorneys, curators, fine arts warehouses, and other collectors. There are also places where jobs can be posted discretely. For example, free postings on the website of the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS), the New York Foundation for the Arts website (fee-based), and specialized art and culture recruiters like Thomas & Associates.
Hiring an independent registrar enables you to be confident that the objects in the collection will be properly cared for and thoroughly documented, leaving you free to enjoy the collection and the hunt. This is value added.