Ann-Marie Richard, Program Director for the MA in Fine and Decorative Art and Design at Sotheby’s Institute-New York, provides a guide to the basic tools of the trade for inspecting and documenting a work of art.
Camera: Most portable phones are fitted with very good lenses to zoom in to capture minute details. For report documenting, no need for a fancy camera, your phone will do just fine. Photograph paintings recto-verso (front and back) and always photograph beneath the base of objects. The reverse of a painting, the canvas overlap, and the base of objects reveal much about the history, origin, and creative process of an artist.
Tape measure: A sturdy contractor’s metallic tape measure is a must-have. One of the first things you do when documenting a painting is to measure height and width; for objects measure height, width, and depth. In the US and UK dimensions are taken in both inches and centimeters for precision. With the basic image and dimensions of the work you can then consult the artist’s catalogue raisonné (a comprehensive scholarly listing of all the known artworks by an artist) and verify that the image and dimensions correspond to the existing documentation about that piece. If they don’t, that would be the first clue that something is not quite right.
Pocket tape measure/level combo: A pocket level and cm/mm tape measure is a good companion to the sturdy one.
Headband visor magnifier: You may look ridiculous wearing this piece of headgear, but it is the most effective way for a first look at condition, marks, and signatures, while keeping your hands free.
Loupes: Sometimes, smaller is better. Jeweler magnifiers of different strengths allow you to inspect small marks and material surfaces. Magnifiers with integrated lights are especially useful. If you don’t have one, most portable phones have an integrated flashlight function/app.
White gloves: Your skin contains natural oils that can damage art. Be sure to glove up before handling objects and artwork.
Portable scale: Silver and gold should be weighed to determine the amount of troy ounces. For small pieces, a battery-operated portable scale is always useful.
Magnet: Magnets are a good way to identify metal—brass, bronze, and copper are not magnetic but cast iron is—and practical to test on sculpture and garden ornaments. Just keep them away from your wallet!
Ultraviolet light: Some things (and thoughts) cannot be seen with the naked eye. Enter the UV light. It’s an essential optical tool for revealing prior conservation or restoration work, underlying drawings, and anything else that might lie beneath the paint surface.
Flashlight: I like to use a common flashlight with an integrated stand and pivoting head—it’s all about ways of seeing. Capturing different angles with various intensity of light will reveal a mountain of texture and detail: natural, fluorescent, raking. Look at your painting in as many types of lights and angles as possible.
Lead pencils: Always use a lead pencil when taking notes in close proximity to artworks. It’s the safe writing tool. It’s always a good idea to have several pencils on hand. There’s no need to stop and sharpen, so you are always good to go.
Pencil sharpener: Forgot to bring extra pencils? You better make sure you have a small sharpener with you. It’s also wise to have one with an integrated basket, as too often there are no waste paper baskets in sight.
Pen: If you must bring a pen, make sure it’s one with a screw top cap to prevent leakage. This should only be used to jot down notes after inspection when you are far away from art. I like to use a rollerball pen that’s concealed in a trompe-l’oeil paint tube. It’s secure and gives an artsy nod.
Useful ephemera: You never know when color-coded post-it notes, paper clips, or an eraser will be useful. So, bring them just in case.
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