Features (by Henry Lie)
the object have any physical characteristics that could help to
identify it (e.g., damage, repairs, or manufacturing defects)?
objects physical condition provides one of the best means
of identifying it uniquely, particularly when it is one of a number
manufactured to a common design or when it closely resembles other
objects of the same kind. Distinguishing Features allows
the recording of physical characteristics (e.g., scratches, creases,
stains, drips in paint or glaze, bubbles, surface texture, etc.)
that could help to uniquely identify an object. Such distinguishing
features are typically small relative to the size of the object,
and are usually the result of a chance event during the manufacturing
process or minor damage sustained at a later date.
A combination of a narrative description, photographs, and sketches
provides the best record of distinguishing features.
description has the advantage of requiring no special equipment,
no photographic or artistic skills, and no need to add material,
such as photographic prints, subsequent to the recording session.
A written narrative can be incorporated into a database more easily
than photographs or sketches. On the other hand, narrative descriptions
are less precise than images, unless the recorder has highly developed
descriptive skills. For this reason narrative text alone is not
recommended to record a unique feature. Avoid one-word descriptions
of condition such as good, fair, or poor
that do not identify an object or provide evidence for accountability
in the event of damage in transit, in storage, or when on loan
distinguishing features, take care to select highly visible features
and to record them precisely. Sketches can complement the written
description and photograph of a distinguishing feature by locating
it on the object and giving an impression of its form and extent.
While simple sketches of unique features may take a few moments
to conceive and produce, they may provide essential distinguishing
feature information clearly and precisely.
a Distinguishing Feature
The nature of the object usually dictates the type of feature
that should be selected. Ideally, the features chosen should be
large enough to see with the naked eye. Structural components
or elements of design in surface decorations should not be chosen
as distinguishing features, since they are more likely to be repeated
in similar objects, copies, or examples from an edition. In addition
to the critical quality of uniqueness, the durability of the selected
feature is an important consideration, if the record is to be
valid over a long period of time. Some features may be removed
or obscured by accidental or intentional changes, such as cropping
the edges from a paper object or a painting, varnishing a decorative
surface, or polishing the surface of a metal object. Another consideration,
in addition to the uniqueness and durability of features, is the
relative ease with which they can be recorded and later recognized
from the record made.
of Art on Paper
Typical distinguishing features for works of art on paper include
tears, creases, abrasions, holes (losses), structural repairs,
in-painting and other restorations, stains (present and removed),
watermarks, edge patterns, cropping of edges, and the exact location
and nature of collectors marks and watermarks. Consistency
of paper quality and the uniform procedures used to print multiple
editions can produce objects that are very difficult to differentiate.
Because of the great similarity among many multiples, it is wise
to select and record two features.
While paintings present fewer challenges than multiple editions,
some painting styles lend themselves to the production of exact
copies, which can be difficult to distinguish one from another.
In such cases, even design elements may not record uniqueness.
More useful features include crackling in the paint surface, distinctive
brush strokes, damage or losses, repairs, irregularities at the
edge of the canvas, and the pattern of paint at the periphery
of the paint area. When the artist paints with a dynamic technique
that results in a distinctive pattern of brushstrokes, the photographic
details of design elements can constitute a reliable and easily
located set of unique features. The reverse side of a painting
can also provide an excellent and often overlooked source of information,
such as signatures, inscriptions, stains, stamps, damages, or
unique aspects of the fabric support. See Textiles
below for further comments on fabric.
and paper objects are vulnerable to being cut down in size, so
recording only features located at the objects edges is
unwise. Similarly, because restorations are subject to change
over time, they should not be used as the sole means of establishing
a record. Moreover, restorations on many paintings are nearly
invisible and can thus be difficult to record. The best distinguishing
features are those occurring in areas least subject to loss or
Cast metal objects often belong to editions of multiples. As with
prints on paper, care should be taken to select distinguishing
features unique to an individual casting rather than to the model
from which it is derived. Tool impressions made on the surface
of the metal after casting can offer unique characteristics for
such as air bubbles or larger voids in the metal, and the applied
metal patches often used to repair them, offer suitable distinguishing
features, as can chance patterns caused by the flow of metal during
casting. Cast and non-cast metal objects have many features in
common. Deep or highly visible scratches and abrasions, dents,
and irregularities in welds or other types of mends or joins can
all provide unique characteristics for recording purposes. However,
it is important to remember that there is a danger of some recorded
features being eradicated at a later date by polishing and reworking
of the surface, painting and repatination, or application of protective
The highly uniform production methods for glass and ceramic objects
can result in artifacts that are difficult to distinguish from
one another. Chips, larger losses, cracks, glaze crack patterns,
bubbles, scratches, abrasions, repair locations, and areas of
irregular surface texture or coloration can be used to create
records for accurate identification. When intentional features
of the design are substantially irregular, these too can be used.
Wooden objects are often unique, and offer a wide variety of distinguishing
features. In addition to many of the damage-related features mentioned
above, wooden objects may often exhibit pronounced grain structure,
irregularities in joinery, irregular details of incised or carved
surface decorations, and saw-mark patterns. Details of decorative
surface coatings and inlay work also provide unique characteristics
appropriate for identification records, unless they happen to
be highly uniform.
Machine-made and even hand-woven fabrics are often produced with
great uniformity. Irregularities in the assembly of separate components
may provide a degree of uniqueness in some cases. Losses, tears,
wear patterns, irregularities in the weave or fiber, repairs,
stains, and the irregular application of colorants are the most
likely features for selection for this purpose. These features
apply as well to the backs of paintings on canvas.
the location of the distinguishing feature
The location of the distinguishing feature selected should always
be recorded. Annotating the location of the distinguishing feature
on an overall photograph is the preferred technique of recording
its location, or by adding the information to the written description
or sketch of the object. As with the descriptions of the features,
the more concise and precise the location description, the more
useful it is likely to be.
In the case of well-known works of art of high value, the existence
of documented distinguishing features should not be made public
knowledge, either before or after a theft. Descriptions and photographs
of these features provide the owner/custodian and police with
information not known to individuals who may claim to possess
the object in an attempt to obtain a ransom under false pretenses.
Any individual can claim to have an object, and may be able to
provide dimensions and a description of its subject matter from
published sources. Only the person in possession of it will be
able to answer questions such as "What can you see on the top
left hand corner of the rear of the canvas?"