Documentation: Inventory / Identification

Creating an inventory of cultural objects is the first level of protection for collections, as undescribed and/or not photographed objects are almost impossible to recover. The inventory allows for the identification and recovery of an object.


Inventory VS Identification


Inventories are detailed, itemized lists, reports or records of objects, monuments, buildings and cultural sites and landscapes. They serve to identify, protect, interpret and physically preserve the registered items.

An inventory aims at listing and organising all the information regarding a cultural artefact, its history and its context. An inventory should therefore contain a complete identification of the object, which can be compared to an ID card, and all the related documentation. It is always accompanied by a numbering system which facilitates the search of an object.

We can distinguish four types/levels of inventories:

  1. The excavation inventory
  2. The inventory of objects belonging to individuals, communities, governments and non-heritage entities
  3. The inventory of objects in places of conservation
  4. The national inventory (public collections)

In some countries, the listing of cultural property on the national inventory will confer a specific legal status to the object (inalienability, impossibility to seize it, etc.).

The inventory can be operated by hand, but the use of computers and computer backup systems are highly recommended. Moreover, they should be duplicated on various supports in order to ensure the safeguarding of the data. States are also encouraged to use a common system for public inventories, and to centralise them in a national database.

Inventorying a collection falls under the responsibility of its public or private owner. It requires rigor and scientific knowledge, in order to ensure a precise description and documentation.


The identification of an object contains a reduced number of information, which is actually limited to the physical description of the object. The ID of an object will actually provide the minimum amount of information required for investigation purpose, which can also be used as a first step for the further development of a professional inventory, or the simple listing of cultural property for individual owners.

Every cultural object, in public or private hands, should be identified, for its own safety. Proper identification of an object will at least combine its description and a good photography. Further documents can also be added to the description to help the identification of the object (sketches, catalogue references, etc.).


The necessity of inventories

“You can’t find something you don’t know”.

Besides its paramount importance for the management of collections, inventory and identification allow for the traceability of cultural objects. The combination between a clear and detailed description of the object and a good photography is an essential condition to recover them in case of theft, as it offers valuable information for State authorities. Scarce or imprecise information can’t be disseminated and used for police investigation.

Moreover, the existence of such information is essential to understand the history of an object and to clearly establish its ownership. Its dissemination is also a condition for the necessary exercise of due diligence during an acquisition.

Consequently, inventory/identification is recognized as the most powerful tool in the fight against illicit traffic of cultural property. States are encouraged to impose the inventory of public collections as a condition for the registration of public places of conservation, and to promote the use of effective inventory systems.


The international legal framework

Numerous international conventions, national legislations or codes of ethic stress the importance of inventorying systems in order to protect cultural property.

In 1964, the UNESCO recommendation on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Export, Import and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property recommended that “each member state should […] draw up a national inventory of [cultural] property”.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property sets up the importance of inventory systems for its States Parties. The article 5 of the Convention encourages them to establish and keep up to date, “on the basis of a national inventory of protected property, a list of important public and private cultural property whose export would constitute an appreciable impoverishment of the national cultural heritage”  [Art. 5(b)]. The article further calls on them to promote “the development or the establishment of scientific and technical institutions (museums, libraries, archives, laboratories, workshops…) required to ensure the preservation and presentation of cultural property” [Art. 5(c)].

Moreover, the article 7 of the Convention underlines the importance of inventories as a condition for the restitution of cultural property.

Similarly, the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural Heritage (1972) insists on the need for each State Party to have an inventory of its national immovable heritage, in its article 11: “Every State Party to this Convention shall, in so far as possible, submit to the World Heritage Committee an inventory of property forming part of the cultural and natural heritage, situated in its territory and suitable for inclusion in the list provided for in paragraph 2 of this Article. This inventory, which shall not be considered exhaustive, shall include documentation about the location of the property in question and its significance.”

As for the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, it provides that: “Museum collections should be documented according to accepted professional standards. Such documentation should include a full identification and description of each item, 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.” (art. 2.20)


Inventorying a collection

General principles

As for any professional practice, there are ground principles ruling the development of an inventory:

  1. Decide on the format: preferably on a computer database, but paper inventory are still in use.  Material needed: paper, pen, ruler and camera (preferably colour digital).
  2. Assign a unique name or number to each display and storage location, with enough detail to locate any object precisely. A greater amount of location details may be required for smaller objects. An object’s “inventory number” will always include this sequence.
  3. Record the location of every object. If an object has an accession number, use this number to record it. Use temporary numbers until a permanent one can be assigned.
  4. Record information for missing objects from the accession register.
  5. Should there already be an existing inventory, it should be combined with the new one.
  6. When necessary, update the accession registers and include any “new objects”. This includes those marked with “temporary” inventory numbers.

The information categories

Information categories are the categories or type of information that will be included in the file. The use of information categories will determine the structure of the inventory. In addition to the list of information categories chosen, the inventory system should indicate:

  • Alternate names: Other names that might be used for an information category.
  • Definitions: A short definition of the category.
  • Examples: Examples of information belonging in this information category.
  • Notes: Whether or not an information category can be used more than once within a file / Whether a controlled and pre-established terminology is recommended.

The following is a list of information groups and categories with their brief descriptions. 

Acquisition: Acquisition method, date and source. It provides evidence of the legal status of the object.

Condition: Condition, condition summary and condition date. It supports accountability and the identification of objects, and helps ensure its physical protection.

Deaccession and disposal: Deaccession/Disposal date, method and recipient. It allows for the confirmation of whether an object is missing or whether it has been actively deaccessioned.

Description: Physical description and specimen status (type of object). It can be very helpful in case of disappearance, and can also be used for other purposes, such as exhibitions and publications.

Image: Image type and reference number. Images are invaluable in the recovery of cultural property. They also serve to support the textual information about the object.

Institution: Institution name, sub-body name, full address and country. This information is essential as it provides a location for an object and/or its documentation.

Location: Current location and current location date, location type and normal location.

Mark and inscription: Mark/inscription text and type, description and technique used for the mark/inscription, position, language and translation.

Material and technique: Material, technique, description of the components.

Measurement: Dimensions and units used, which is also of primary importance.

Object association: Associated place, date, group/person name, association type, original function.

Object collection: Collection place and date, collector and collection method. It provides essential information about the origin of an object, and supports the documentation of the collection.

Object entry: Current owner and depositor; entry date, number and reason. It concerns the objects that are not owned by the institution (long-term loans, exhibitions, etc.).

Object name: Object name and name type. It allows for a better organisation of the collection by types of objects.

Object number: Object number, number type and date numbered. It confers a unique identity to the object and a link to its related documentation.

Object production: Production place, date, group/person name, role of the object. It supports the documentation of the production of man-made objects.

Object title: Title, title type and translation. It is also an essential piece of information.

Parts and components: Number of parts or components and their description. It ensures the maintenance of parts of objects together.

Recorder: Name of the recorder, date and authority. These are essential details for maintaining the inventory control. It can help prevent unauthorized alteration of documentation.

Reference: Reference and reference type. It can be significant in proving ownership of the object, for example where reference is made to documents supporting legal title.

Reproduction Rights: Reproduction rights note and owner. It protects the intellectual property of the object.

Subject Depicted: Subject represented and description. This information is of great importance for a rudimentary identification of objects.

Should you wish for further information on the matter you may find the details regarding this list in the CIDOC Information Categories (International Guidelines for Museum Object Information).


Photographing the object

A photograph is the second essential element required to trace back a stolen object. It can sometimes be more useful than any description, since law enforcement officer don’t always have the required knowledge to understand technical descriptions. A good photograph of the object, and of some of its details, is a real asset for investigation units. Some databases of stolen objects, such as the French TREIMA database, even use image comparison systems to search for an item.

General recommendations

When taking pictures, it is important to keep in mind that a good image is not necessarily of the quality required for publication in an exhibition catalogue. The importance of the identity picture is to allow for the proper identification of the object, aesthetics are less important than “readability” in this case. The following information is taken from the guidelines of the French Central Office for the Fight against Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods (OCBC).

Technical details

  • Ensure that the picture is not fuzzy.
  • The shooting can be performed with traditional or digital techniques.
  • When using digital photography, use the highest practical resolution and store images in an uncompressed format whenever possible. For digital photos, a minimal 300dpi is recommended.
  • Whenever possible, the picture should be in colour.
  • Keep a log of all photographs made. It should contain the list of the objects photographed, the equipment used, technical details of the shooting and name of the photographer.
  • Metadata should also be recorded in the digital image file, and if possible visible on the image itself.

The following should be visible on the image

  • A ruler or scale to evaluate the size of the object. The ruler or scale should always be on the same plane as the object.
  • A colour chart for reading the colour of the object, through a comparison to an objective colour reference. Light variations when taking the picture may alter the original object’s colour and therefore mislead the observer reading the image.
  • The inventory number of the object, clearly legible.
  • The name of the photographer and the date of the shooting.
  • The name of the institution.

Object composition

  • Avoid shadows from labels and other elements encroaching on the space of the object. Rulers and colour-charts are allowed, but must be situated in such a way that they may be cropped out if necessary.
  • The full shape and all the contours of each object should be clearly visible. The edge of prints, drawings and tables should be clearly visible.
  • Wherever possible, two-dimensional objects, paintings, prints, coins, etc., should be photographed from a 90º angle, without distortions, and from the centre of the object.
  • Three-dimensional objects, such as furniture, must be taken in several shots at different angles (forward, profile, three-quarters and top). Should the bottom of the object have specificities, it should also be photographed.
  • Objects belonging to a set must be photographed both together and individually.
  • Photography whenever possible details of inscriptions, repairs, damage, such as cracks, or any other distinctive features that will help to differentiate the object from similar items.
  • Objects must be centred and occupy as much of the image space as possible
  • The longer part of the object must be placed horizontally or vertically, but never diagonally.


  • If the object is made up of bright or dark colours: white or neutral-coloured background.
  • If the object is made of glass or is light in colour: dark backgrounds.
  • The background should be made up of a smooth surface. This will avoid misreading the object’s contours.


  • Direct light is unadvisable. It is preferable to create an ambient light with artificial lighting placed around the object.
  • When using a single source of light, it should come from the upper right.
  • Do not use a flash as it creates glares and contrasting shadows on the objects.
  • The light should be neutral in color. Avoid yellow light-bulbs. It is preferable to favor “daylight” lamps.
  • Crystal objects might prove the hardest to photograph. It is best to try different dark backgrounds and lights coming from one side or from the lower side.


  • Store images in an appropriate environment, to ensure both preservation and accessibility.
  • Make and store multiple copies in different locations. At least one copy should be stored off site, away from the object.

Things to avoid

  • Shots of groups of objects, with the exception of sets of objects that belong together.
  • Lighting effects that obscure the details of the object: reflections, shadows, light changes, etc. Lighting should be as neutral as possible.
  • Avoid obscuring parts of objects.
  • Avoid brightly coloured, textured or patterned backgrounds that can be distracting.


The need for international standards, Object ID

Law enforcement agencies are using documentation as an essential instrument in the protection of cultural goods, as it is almost impossible to recover an object which hasn’t been appropriately described and photographed.

Given the nature of illicit traffic in cultural goods, information about a stolen or seized object needs to circulate quickly and be easily understood in all part of the world. The development of internet and computer networks allows the fast dissemination of information. The type of information provided often varies, whereas the data should be comprehensible by a wide range of systems and people.

Object ID is now recognised as the international standard determining the minimum amount of information required to document collections of archaeological, cultural and artistic objects. It is a simple, standardised and effective tool. The Object ID standard is currently available in 17 languages: Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish, and Ukrainian.

Object ID can be used for three different purpose:

  • Though not an inventory system, it can be used as a basis for the initial development of an inventory.
  • In case of theft, the Object ID Record sheet of the stolen object(s) can be disseminated to all relevant actors at the national (national police, customs, INTERPOL National Central Bureau, ministry of culture, institutions, etc.) or international level (ICOM, INTERPOL, UNESCO). The information collected will feed national database of stolen objects, and is also compatible with INTERPOL’s database on Stolen Works of Art, allowing for a direct and quick inclusion of the object into their database.
  • In case of seizure, the Object ID Record sheet of the seized object(s) can also be sent to all relevant actors at the national (national police, customs, INTERPOL National Central Bureau, ministry of culture, institutions, etc.) or international level (ICOM, INTERPOL, UNESCO), in order to start preliminary research. It can also be quickly disseminated worldwide with the use of the ARCHEO platform created by customs.

Categories of information

The tool is divided into two parts: the Record Sheet and the Supplementary Useful Information.

The Record Sheet gathers all the basic information about the object: measurements, markings, distinguishing features. It is mostly intended for the quick dissemination of information for investigation purpose. It also includes a brief description and the addition of photograph(s).

The Supplementary Useful Information is an optional set which provides more detailed information, such as the loan history or the cross reference to the object. It can be used for further long-term investigation or, as mentioned above, to initiate an inventory system.


The Object ID Record Sheet

Type of object

  • Either with a unique term or a detailed phrase.
  • If one object has several denominations, choose a “preferred term” and indicate all others as synonyms. Synonyms allow for more choices when researching the databases.
  • The same logic applies to the “levels” of detailed information.
  • An issue may arise with ensembles. In this case the ensemble is under “Type of object” and the different parts of the set in “Description”.

Materials and techniques

  • Can be designated in generic terms, but the more precise the information the more efficient is the Record Sheet.
  • If there are several materials, colours or techniques, identify the dominant ones, and put additional details in “description”.


  • Indicate the type of measurement used.
  • Dimensions should be as precise as possible.
  • The type of measurement varies according to the object. For paintings, the length and width are sufficient (indicating if the frame is included). The height, width and depth should be known for other types of goods. The diameter will be used for all round objects, including textiles. The weight shall also be measured, particularly for sculptures and precious metals. Concerning the sculptures, it is important to measure the points that are furthest apart, or, if it has an irregular shape, note where the measurements were taken.

Inscriptions and markings

  • Write down: Serial numbers, visuals, security markings, inventory numbers, signatures and other writings.
  • Take note of exactly where the marking is.
  • Copy the exact text, even with mistakes, using [sic]. Copy in the original language and if possible add a translation.
  • If you don’t recognise the alphabet, describe the writing and draw it or take a picture.
  • If the inscriptions have distinctive characteristics, also put them in “Description”.

Distinctive features

  • Anything that is visible and particular to the object and which facilitates identification (imperfections, restorations…). Preferably it should be characteristics that can’t be easily changed if the object is stolen.
  • Indicate where it is and add a photograph or drawing.
  • The choice of characteristic depends on the object (restorations, irregularities or brush marks for a painting, carpentry details for a wooden object, bubbles for glass, etc.).


  • Title or designation of the object.
  • If there is no official title, then the one it is known for.
  • If the object has different names and in different languages, write them all (both the original and the translated versions).
  • If the title is written and visible on the object, also note it on “Inscriptions and markings”.
  • If the title describes the painting’s theme, also note it in “Theme”.


  • Use simple and precise terms to describe what the object is representing
  • Technical information is precise, but not easily understood. It is preferable to use layman’s terms.
  • The theme is indicated with key words which allow for finding and comparing archives in a precise manner.

Date or period

  • Indicate the specific date. If this cannot be done, then be the most approximate as possible (period, dynasty, century, etc.).
  • Dates can be preceded with “probably” and “circa”.
  • When providing the information internationally, avoid periods specific to a country or region.
  • If the object has pieces from several time periods, give them all by order.


  • Write all the ways it is spelled. The J. Paul Getty Trust’s Union List of Artist Names® Online is a database of artists names and spellings.
  • If it has several authors, make a note of it.
  • If it’s a famous artist, add the dates of birth and death, or period he worked.
  • If the author is unconfirmed, you can use “attributed to” or “school of”.  Make sure you’re using the right legal definition for the “authoring”.

Short description

Describe the object, the state of conservation and other details which haven’t been already mentioned. It can also relate the history of the object, or any other useful information.

Items attached

Enclose photographs, sketches, or other elements regarding the object. It is important to indicate how many copies or versions there are of each element.


The Object ID Supplementary Useful Information

Any other information can be added to the Record Sheet, but is not absolutely necessary as the Object ID is set for the minimum required information.

All details included in this section could also be incorporated into the description of the object.

The Object ID Supplementary Useful Information is recommended by the J. Paul Getty Trust, UNESCO and ICOM.

Inventory information: If it is written on the object add it to “Inscriptions and markings”. Add the date of inventory and the last update.

Related written material: Mention all references or publications. They may also be included in “Description”.

Place of origin/discovery: Place where it originated and/or was found, which may be very different from one another.

Cross reference to related objects: Cross-references with similar objects, which may pertain to other collections and establish historical interest of the object.

Present condition of the object

Permanent location of the object


Location within the institution: The temporary emplacement of the object, if different from its permanent location.

Date of acquisition or accession

Acquisition or accession method

Loan history: History of lending, with details of the institution, dates of approval, length of time approved, dates lent and returned.

Author and date record prepared: Write the date when the file was created, and the author (name, title, name and address of institution or organisation).