Introduction to Object ID
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categories of information
Type Title
Materials Subject
Measurements Date
Inscriptions Maker
Distinguishing Description

The Object ID checklist recommends that, in addition to providing the information covered in the preceding categories, users write a short description that can also include additional information helping to identify the object. These descriptions can be written in two ways: either to record information not covered in other categories or to summarize the information recorded under other categories in a unified entry.

Non-experts may wish to confine the description to new information, answering the following questions to the extent that the information is known:
  1. What does the object look like, what are its colors and shape; are there other attributes not recorded elsewhere in the record?
  2. What is its place of origin, its provenance, the history of the object’s ownership; has it ever been exhibited?
  3. Has anything been written about it?
Experts, on the other hand, often use the description to summarize all information of relevance in a unified entry. Auctioneers and dealers commonly include the following information in the description. While the order may vary among organizations and even departments, it is important to be as consistent as possible in terms of both the format and the order of the information within a given set of records:
  1. Name of the artist
  2. Artist’s dates and sometimes locus of activity
  3. Materials and techniques
  4. Measurements ("sight size," see Measurements)
  5. Title, or subject if there is no title
  6. Indication if the painting is signed and dated
  7. Provenance, literature, and exhibition history
Theobald Michau
(Tournai 1676-1765 Antwerp)
The Fortune Teller
Oil on panel, 33.6 x 48.2 cm
John Theobald Michau
Mitchell & Son, 1966
Private collection, UK
In the case of furniture, and many other types of objects, the emphasis is less on the maker and more on the appearance of the object. The following is typical of the information provided, although the order in which it is given varies:
  1. Descriptive phrase that can combine style/period of manufacture, the type of object, and principal material(s)
  2. Materials and techniques used, together with a description of the object’s appearance
  3. Place of origin
  4. Maker’s name
  5. Measurements
  6. Provenance and literature
Baroque cupboard in Caucasian walnut, veneered pine, with doors divided into four mirrored sections, parquetry in walnut, root, fine-grained myrrh and cherry
234 x 197 x 75 cm
Germany, Mainz-Kurpfalz, circa 1750
In the antiques trade, it is usual to describe items of furniture from the top down, starting with the upper surface and working down to the legs.
crossbanded plank top with re-entrant corners. The frieze with one long drawer above three short drawers, all with their original handles. Standing on bifurcated legs with pad feet.
Descriptions of jewelry can include the materials (e.g., diamond, topaz, bronze, gold) and, where appropriate, their purity (e.g., 18 carat), the ways in which any stones are cut (e.g., brilliant, baguette, Swiss), the positions of inclusions, the forms of settings (e.g., scroll, scallop or arcade, organ pipe), maker’s marks and purity marks, names of designers and or makers, place and date of manufacture, and other constructional and decorative techniques employed, as well as any subject matter depicted.

The written description should also qualify any information about which there is a degree of uncertainty.
According to tradition this decorative ship carving came from the packet ship, Congress
. . . .probably to commemorate the marriage of Philip Papillon (d. 1736)
. . . .possibly owned by George Parnall, mayor of Hereford in 1660.
While the description should create a picture of the object in the mind’s eye of the reader, in reality it is not always easy for non-experts to visualize an object from the description alone. This is why photographs are of crucial importance. The written description and the accompanying photographs should be complementary — the photograph illustrating the features described by the written record, and the written record providing the information about the object’s physical characteristics and history that cannot be gained from the image alone.

In the writing of descriptions, specialist jargon should be avoided, as should adjectives such as interesting, old, rare, and important.

In addition to providing the information recommended by Object ID, the description can also be used to summarize the history of the ownership of the object (its provenance), its exhibition history, and any literature concerning it (see Related Written Material). These categories do not greatly assist the process of identifying an object, but can be of great value when it comes to proving ownership — particularly when title is disputed.

Ideally, a complete record of the provenance of an object includes all owners from the time it left the maker’s possession to the time it was acquired by the present owner. In addition to the names of owners, it may include their places of residence, the dates of their ownership of the object, methods of acquisition, uncertainty or lapses in provenance, and any other information regarded as relevant. The history of the ownership of an object can, therefore, provide useful evidence, not only about former owners, but also, by extension, about the location of the object throughout time.
Robert Smythson (England, ca. 1535-1614); John Smithson (died 1634); Huntingdon Smythson (died 1648); John Smithson the Younger (1640-1717);. . .sold by the 5th Lord Byron at Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, June 1778, lot 344; there bought by the Rev. D’Ewes Coke of Broke-hill Hall, Derbyshire; by descent to Mrs. S. Coke of Broke-hill Hall, from whom the drawing was purchased by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1927.
The exhibition history of an object provides the names, locations and dates of any exhibitions at which the object is known to have been shown, e.g., Exhibited: Paris, Grand Palais, Salon (Société National des Beaux Arts), 1914. If an exhibition catalogue was produced, this can be recorded in Related Written Material (see Additional Recommended Categories).

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