Smart Art Collecting: Must-Have Transaction Documents

Artwork Archive | April 16, 2019

As an art collector, it pays to be organized.

Literally, it pays off to obtain supporting documentation at the time of your fine art and collectible purchases. These documents will be instrumental in managing your financials and estate planning.

For one, object documentation will support authenticity and passage of clear legal title—proving the value of your piece and bettering your chances to see a positive return on your investment. 

Below is a checklist of documents to consider requesting for any purchase, whether acquiring an object through a dealer, gallery, art advisor or private sale. All documents should be requested from the seller at the time of the transaction.

Provenance Report

When making an art or other collectible purchase, a provenance report should be in hand and include the following:

  • Past transactions and exhibition history.
  • Names of people—companies, auction houses, dealers, or galleries—that might have taken part in the transaction of the object.
  • Dates and locations of each transaction.

Aside from facts regarding the object's past, it can also include stories and hearsay regarding history. Even if there are no documents to support the story, it can be a starting point for further research.

Exhibition history, although it does not include transactional information, will include the whereabouts of the object at a specific point in time. This information can include museum or gallery exhibitions. If the object was included in a public exhibition at a museum, chances are good that it was also published in an exhibition catalogue, which can be found via WorldCat. An exhibition at a gallery may have resulted in a sale of the object. Galleries sometimes publish exhibition catalogues where the object may be listed.

Some provenance reports are incomplete, may only highlight major collections that the object was included in, or list "private collection". A provenance report should always be further investigated, even if it is coming from a major auction house or dealer. For more on provenance research, refer to Artwork Archive's article "Getting Started With Provenance Research".

Bills of Sale

When making a purchase of art or another collectible, all bills of sale, including one from the current transaction and any past transactions, should be in hand.

Getting a past bill of sale can be difficult, but a request can be made for a redacted one, meaning any sensitive information can be redacted. Details from past sales that appear to be insignificant can actually be meaningful such as where the art was last purchased from or the date of the last transaction.

Be carefull. This type of information listed in secondary sources is not evidence of a transaction. Original documents like bills of sale are key to revealing past transactional information.

You can upload bills of sale to your Artwork Archive account so that your accountants and lawyers always have access to these key financial documents around tax season and estate planning.


Supporting literature should be included with the sale including lists of articles, exhibition catalogues, catalogue raisonné listings and any sources that mention of the object. Copies of the articles and literature sources where the object is mentioned are worth requesting.

Condition Report

Request a recent condition report as well. The report should be completed by a conservator and include the type of object, date of examination, dimensions, description, condition, evidence of previous repairs, corrosion, stretcher and frame condition, fragile or damaged surfaces and any loose or missing parts.

We recommend keeping this report in your Artwork Archive account so that conservators and restorers can properly maintain your work of art.


A recent appraisal report that is USPAP compliant (Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice) should also be included with your purchase. A USPAP certified appraiser can be found via any of the appraisal organizations such as Appraisers Association of America, International Society of Appraisers or American Society of Appraisers. Major auction houses and private appraisal companies can also do appraisals.

Art loss check

A document showing that an art loss check was run will provide proof of due diligence to reveal if the object was registered as stolen or lost. There are several companies that provide these services including Art Recovery International.


Ensure that high quality images of the front and back of the object accompany the purchase. Request images that include any signatures, inscriptions or labels, which can all provide information on the object's past whereabouts and act as a lens into the object's authenticity.

Save the data to Artwork Archive

Once all of the object's documentation is collected you can store it in an online collection management system like Artwork Archive.

The advantage of keeping this information online is that you don't have to worry about natural disasters destroying your documentation; physical records can disappear from fires and floods. You can easily share documents with those that play a part in managing your investment—financial advisors, attourneys, conservators, art advisors, etc. And, these records will always be accessible for those running your estate.

Sign up for an Artwork Archive account to start digitizing and organizing your collection documents.


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