January 25, 2021
The Art of Collection Management by Simon Wills

Joan Miro 1893-1983, L’Oiseau Solaire, L’Oiseau Lunaire, Etincelles

Family Office Magazine, Fall 2020

The Art of Collection Management

by Simon Wills

There is an all-too-familiar profile encountered in the art advisory business when working with private clients, best described as the “Accidental Collector.”  This occurs when, over time and usually without intent, a high net worth individual or family amasses a collection of art or other luxury collectibles, with no long view on how to manage or maintain it.  What begins as a hobby grows quickly into a serious passion, and the important personal tangible assets eventually can form a significant portion of their net worth.  When an unexpected life event occurs and there is an urgent need to take stock of these assets, the Accidental Collector discovers that the collection has become a serious financial blind spot.

Unlike real estate, closely held businesses, or securities portfolios, personal tangible assets are often an overlooked area of wealth.  They can languish for years without being appraised or inventoried, properly insured, or included in legacy planning.  Too often it is left up to fiduciaries and beneficiaries to sort out, and long after the time to gather critical information has passed.

What does the alternative look like?  What are the best practices of an Intentional Collector, one who applies the same rigorous planning to their art and collectibles as they do their other assets?  Like any portfolio, an art collection requires regular review in order to manage unnecessary downside risk, to maintain or enhance the value of these holdings, and to take advantage of emerging opportunities.  There are, however, several unique and fundamental practices that a collector or a family office manager should follow for proper collection management.

Data management

Flip a painting over (carefully), and on the reverse you will often find a treasure trove of information;  signatures, inscriptions, as well as provenance information—in the form of old labels and inventory numbers—can often be found adhered to the back of a painting’s canvas and stretcher.  Old repairs, not visible on the front of the canvas, can often be discovered, as well as labels from intended auction consignments that then didn’t transpire. These pieces of information, along with authentication certificates, literature references, exhibition history, condition reports, and bills of lading, all tell the story of that object and its provenance and support its value.  Not only does this information establish an ownership timeline for the work of art, it can also often support authenticity or add value when works are associated with other well-known and respected collections.  This is especially true with fine art, but similar information underpins the value of important furniture, wine, jewelry, classic cars, and many other categories of luxury collectibles.

Good data management is the bedrock of a proper collection management system, and it requires an inventory system that can not only track the physical location of objects across multiple locations and properties, but also store and retrieve critical records.  A good collection management system should be a dedicated piece of software—ideally not based in the cloud, to avoid possible security risks—that can store images and information on thousands of unique objects, with the ability to produce reports, to aid in regular collection review.


The art market is small and traditionally relatively illiquid compared to the capital and real estate markets.  You can’t open the Wall Street Journal to check what Van Gogh is trading at on a given day.  A professional appraisal, based on the fair market value or retail replacement value of comparable items trading in the relevant marketplace, is an essential first step when looking to insure, sell, donate, or plan for a collection of value.  Understanding what type of appraisal is needed, and making sure appraisals are updated regularly, is critical, as is working with a reputable and qualified appraiser or art advisor who can offer guidance.


Art insurance is a specialized product, and collectors or family office managers should consider having a separate policy for art and collectibles.  Homeowner’s insurance will often have exclusions when a work of art exceeds a certain value, for example.  A specialty art insurance broker will make sure the collection is properly covered, with appraisals updated regularly (typically every 1 – 5 years, depending on the collecting category) and can help navigate the claims process, should an incident of damage or loss occur.  In response to the London Momart warehouse fire in 2004, which saw the loss of $100 million in fine art property, an online Global Risk Assessment Program (GRASP) was established to standardize risk criteria for storage of fine art objects, and it can assess the risk profile of a collection and offer recommendations.

Shipping, storage, and installation

Physical assets are inherently vulnerable to wear and tear, especially when being moved or if improperly stored.  Utilizing professional art handling services who specialize in the movement and storage of art and personal tangible assets will minimize the risks involved when moving works from one home to another, or taking them in and out of storage.  Depending on the material, climate-controlled environments can be crucial to the long-term preservation of these assets.

Art Lending

While good art insurance protects against downside risk, there are also strategies for maximizing financial potential.  As the art market has continued its global growth, opportunities to leverage the value of these assets through art-backed loans has grown as well.  Many large banks and specialized lenders will offer liquidity at around 50% of the fair market or marketable cash value of the art and allow the art to remain in the collector’s home, but it is important to note that lenders have individual requirements for art as collateral loans.  A current appraisal, provided by an independent appraiser, will also be needed to confirm the value of the art for potential loan collateral.


A good collection is built over time, and occasionally it requires editing as the collector’s vision changes or spaces begin to fill.  Selling, whether at auction or privately, is a complex endeavor and can be difficult to navigate.  A collector should engage the services of a good independent advisor who understands the market and the process, who will work on their behalf to minimize commissions and sale-related costs, identify the most advantageous timing and geographical location for a sale, and target the right buyers in order to maximize the potential return.

In conclusion

For most collectors, art and other personal luxury assets are an outlet of passion, not simply investments acquired only as financial assets.  Yet as the global art market expands year over year and the values soar for certain segments within that market, it is incumbent upon collectors to take stock of their collection and seek out professional and independent advice and services in order to properly manage these assets.  Good legacy planning is an intentional process and rarely happens by accident.


Simon Wills is Associate Director of Business Development for Winston Art Group.  Independent of any auction house or dealer, Winston Art Group specializes in confidential and objective appraisal services and advice on the acquisition or disposal of all fine and decorative art, jewelry, and collectibles.