Documentation: Introduction

In general terms, documentation refers to all the documents providing information about the nature, origin, and ownership of the object. Documentation is crucial to the protection of works of art and antiquities because of the huge difficulty to find and return objects to their rightful owners when said objects are not properly documented. A great number of stolen goods therefore can’t be investigated by the competent authorities, mostly due to the lack of documents which would allow identifying it with certainty. Proper documentation also constitutes provenance for consumers wishing to purchase cultural objects legally.


The necessity of documentation

The ICOM Code of Ethics also includes provisions regarding the documentation of collections, in its article 2.20: "Museum collections should be documented according to accepted professional standards. Such documentation should include a full identification and description of each object, its associations, provenance, condition, treatment and present location. Such data should be kept in a secure environment and be supported by retrieval systems providing access to the information by the museum personnel and other legitimate users".

Most of the following information has been taken from CIDOC’s Statement of principles of museum documentation.

Documentation contains data concerning the physical characteristics of the object (dimensions, shape, material, etc.), its full history, and its environment.

It can therefore include:

  • Detailed description of the object and supplementary useful information, based on the Object ID standard
  • Certificate of authenticity
  • Export or import certificates
  • Exhibit or auction catalogues
  • Loan and acquisition documents
  • Inventory documents
  • Extracts from catalogue raisonné
  • Related written materials (research and field collection notes, correspondence, reports, cross reference to related objects)
  • Documents informing about the origin of the object
  • Documents informing about the intellectual property rights concerning the object
  • Photographs
  • And other relevant documents…


Documentation requirements

Cultural objects exist through their accompanying documents. They constitute the object’s pedigree, and allow for its safe identification, and thus its recovery in case of theft. In some cases of massive thefts or looting, the lack of documentation can have dramatic consequences and make the recovery of objects almost impossible.

Bearing this in mind, every cultural institution should adopt a documentation policy, which defines the documentation procedures and standards, the provision of documentation staff and systems, and the documentation services offered to the public. Should a collection be insufficiently documented, effort should be made by the conservation institutions to improve it.

Every acquisition, be it in a public or a private collection, should be accompanied by the documentation of the object and should be inventoried. Source material held by the museum should be treated with due respect to archival standard. Details obtained from an external source should be verified with scrutiny. The details of the acquisition should also be added to the documentation set, even in the case of a temporary custody. The data should be regularly updated, and any modification on the object (alteration, restoration, displacement, loan…) needs to be consigned in the documentation system...

Should an object be deaccessioned, its documentation should be retained by the museum, and the details of the deaccession should be documented. If the object is transferred to another museum, a copy of the documentation should be passed to that museum.


Documentation sharing and security

Institutions and private collectors tend not to share the information contained in the documentation of an object. This is often a mistake as the sharing of information actually strengthens the protection of an object and facilitates any future potential restitution claim. Some museums have thus opted for:

  • A full transparency policy with regards to the origin of their collection in order to affirm the legality of their ownership and acquisition
  • Hosting research areas where visitors can consult paper records and files, catalogue records, images and other resources
  • Developed public on-line databases of their collections and documentation.

Since proper documentation is the only way to prove the ownership of an object, it is also important to secure this information and make sure that it can’t be lost or stolen. Therefore, it is highly recommended to duplicate such information, if possible by means of digitalization. Furthermore, the access to confidential information shall be restricted. A good combination of safety and accessibility is the key for a collection’s added value.


Genuine and valid documentation

Holding documents accompanying an object doesn’t necessarily mean that they are neither valid, nor genuine. Depending on the context or the area, documents of authentic origin sometimes have no legal value with regards to the ownership of the cultural property. Anyone who wishes to acquire a cultural object should therefore check the legal validity of the accompanying documentation, as well as the type of support accepted in the country of destination. For the time being, most of the countries require paper documents.

Fake documentation also represents a growing problem for the authentication of cultural property and the establishment of its legal ownership. Forged documents will be used to clear a stolen object, or to authenticate fake items. In both cases, forgers have learned to use technical innovations for their purpose. As a consequence, the quality of fake documentation has improved strongly over the past decade, and can be very hard to detect, even for experts.

There are simple ways to detect fraudulent documentation. The most efficient method is consulting the opinion of an expert or a member of the State administration.