From Clutter to Cataloged: How to Use Estate Planning to Preserve the Art Legacy of a Loved One

Suzy Kopf | February 13, 2024

A naturally lit studio with many windows and artist studio tools stacked up on a desk. Studio setup for a lithography of a Siamese cat by artist Emily Weinstein.

Imagine for a minute: You are in a room full of uncatalogued art treasures.

You glance around. There are easels, paint brushes sticking out of jars and glasses, drawing tables loaded down with papers, and knickknacks on every shelf. There are lights, books, and canvas boards stacked waist high—there is scarcely room to walk. It's beautiful, full of memories, and ... overwhelming. 

You might find yourself in this situation for several reasons. Perhaps you're assisting a family member who has spent a lifetime collecting and creating art, now facing the need to downsize. Or maybe, you're tasked with the bittersweet duty of organizing and cataloging the estate of an artist close to you who has left behind a legacy through their work. In either case, the room symbolizes not just a physical space filled with objects, but a treasure trove of history, emotion, and artistic expression that demands care, respect, and a thoughtful approach to preservation and possibly distribution.

If you find yourself in a position to help an elder go through their belongings before a move, or organizing an artist’s estate after they have passed, the sheer amount of things can feel overwhelming—and the tasks ahead are daunting to tackle.

The good news? Artwork Archive is perfectly set up to help you handle this event and preserve their legacy for generations.

Where do you start when you are tasked with the job of estate planning for a relative?

A good place to start is to consider your ultimate goal:

  • Are you aiming to clear space without the need to save anything?
  • Do you intend to keep a select number of mementos and important pieces, but discard the rest?
  • Are you tasked with documenting everything from scratch for a retrospective, catalog, or auction?
  • Are you considering evaluating items for potential donation to museums or art schools?
  • Are you identifying pieces that may have significant market value for sale or consignment?
  • Do you aim to preserve historically significant items for future generations?
  • Are you planning to digitize artwork and documents to ensure their legacy lives on digitally?

If you’d like to catalog all or some of the artwork you’ve found in a home, either for insurance evaluation or just posterity's sake, Artwork Archive can assist you in these endeavors. 

As you embark on this project, you may choose to work solo or in collaboration with other family members, possibly sharing an account to manage the process. The goal is to create a digital archive of artwork that was either created or collected by a loved one. This digital legacy is something you can cherish and maintain long after the physical clutter has been cleared away.

Be prepared for the magnitude of this endeavor—it's a significant project that demands a considerable investment of time. Realistically, it could take weeks or even months to thoroughly catalog everything. However, find solace in the knowledge that a task like this, when done meticulously and completely, only needs to be done once. It can also help bring together families, preserve histories, and document our collective experience.


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How do you even start a large estate planning project?

If you’re sorting through an entire home, experts generally recommend a room-by-room approach, and if possible, a category-by-category approach is helpful to stay clear-headed. If all the art you need to inventory is spread out across a property, plan to gather it first into one room and sort by size or general time period before documenting and inputting the information you can gather yourself (size and material). 

When preparing to sort through items, it's essential to organize your approach for efficiency and effectiveness. Here's how you can set yourself up for success:

  • Create categories for the art objects (and other objects): Assemble containers for different purposes:

    • Donation
    • Trash
    • Recycling
    • Items to be documented and donated
    • Items to be documented and gifted
    • Items to document and keep
  • Collect supplies to pack, move or protect your art objects: Ensure you have all the necessary tools and supplies at hand:

    • Tape and scissors for securing items
    • Packing materials for protection
    • Markers for labeling
    • Cleaning products for tidying items up
  • Process each art item carefully: As you work through each item:

    • Clean it, if it's dusty or dirty.
    • What do we know about the item? Enter the information about the artwork into the artwork record.
    • Wrap it securely to prevent damage.
    • Place it in the appropriate category or bin, based on your initial sorting categories.
  • Efficiently handle groups of similar art objects: When you encounter multiple items of the same type, such as a shelf of instructional art books you plan to sell:

    • Scan their ISBN numbers into a book-buying app to handle them all at once. The app may refuse the box or only offer .5 cents when you scan, which that case ... go to the next step below.
    • Box them up and set them aside to take to a local used bookstore


How do you deal with the items that you deem "non-archival"?

Expanding on the process of sorting items, it's crucial to approach this task with a clear and honest perspective regarding the utility and value of each item. When sorting items, be honest with yourself about what is still useful to someone and what is trash. Many donation places are overrun with items that are actually trash that people donated.

Of course, donations are crucial and the first step! But, here are some important guidelines to help you go through your planning process.

  • Assess the Item Utility and Value:
    • Be truthful with yourself about an item's usefulness to others or its status as trash. Avoid contributing to the issue of donation centers being overwhelmed with unusable items.
    • If the item does not currently hold value, in whatever sense you are using to assess it, document the work on your inventory system (if you are having trouble letting it go) and move it to the donation or trash category. 
  • Deciding on Disposal or Donation:

    • Consider art supplies or materials. If they are partially used or expired, they should generally be disposed of unless there's a local arts reuse nonprofit that accepts such items.
    • For items like a barely used paint set, think about gifting it to a child or teenager who would appreciate and use it.
  • Selling artwork, used furniture and collectibles on marketplaces:

    • Furniture and office equipment often have a good resale value. Utilize platforms like Facebook Marketplace for these items, but be prepared for the effort involved, including managing inquiries like "is this available".
    • Additionally, you will need to price items at or below half their purchase price to get interested buyers and may need to be willing to reduce the price further to secure someone who will come pick up the item.
    • Always use caution when inviting people to your home and never share your phone number or email as these are now common ways to get scammed.
    • Accept cash or other in-person payment only.
    • Alternatively, you could partner with a local consignment shop to sell high-end furniture items or art, but be prepared to take on the burden of delivery and give away 20-50% of the proceeds of the sale.
  • Guidelines for Specific Types of Items:

    • Commercial giveaway items or containers: Directly recycle if possible, or dispose of or recycle, if not.
    • Partially Used or Expired Art Supplies:
      • Trash, unless a specific donation opportunity exists.
      • Seek out arts reuse organizations for gently used items.
    • High-Value or Collectible Items:
      • Research potential value for niche collectibles.
      • Consider specialized platforms for selling collectibles.
    • Functional Furniture and Office Supplies:
      • List on secondhand selling sites.
      • Prepare for the process by taking good photos and writing clear descriptions.

By applying these considerations, you can more effectively sort through items, ensuring that each is disposed of, donated, or sold in the most appropriate manner. This approach not only helps you clear space responsibly but also maximizes the potential value recovered from the items you decide to part with.


Two individuals looking at and discussing a painting in process on the floor of a studio. Artist Barbara Shelly examining one of her pieces with her art teacher Kassem Amoudi.

Achieving clarity, closure, and cataloging in artist estate planning.

When sorting through items, such as paintbrushes, and you think there might be more scattered throughout the home, hold off on evaluating them immediately. Instead, gather all similar items together to review them in one session. This strategy is particularly useful when organizing a studio that contains both materials and finished artworks.

If you are just starting out, we recommend starting with the supplies, since they tend to evoke less emotional attachment.

Prioritize the cataloging of finished works for the end. 

When you get to reviewing these, eliminate any pieces that were simple exercises, or classroom assignments, or remain unfinished.

After narrowing down the pieces into works to be donated, gifted, and kept, you will want to document them. If you are having trouble emotionally letting go of an artwork, the process of documenting the work and the story of the art can help you let go of the physical work. 

Document each artwork, including relevant details, and upload this information to your Artwork Archive account.

This allows your family, collaborators, and select others to provide their input and assistance.

To make the process more manageable and motivating, actively remove items from the work area by either donating, selling, or discarding them. Clearing space not only provides you with more room to operate but also encourages continued progress. Remember, the most effective way to tackle such tasks is to persistently work through them.


Artwork Archive Tip:

Add family members, collaborators, or studio managers as additional users to help manage your archive and preserve your artistic legacy.

Learn more here


How to get started on your estate planning project

In leveraging an artist or collector account on Artwork Archive to document the work of a loved one, you are provided with a powerful tool to honor and preserve the legacy of an artist's life, creations, and collection.

Artwork Archive allows for the meticulous cataloging of each piece, from sketches to the most significant finished works, ensuring that the emotional and historical value of these items is recognized and recorded. This documentation becomes a shared digital legacy, accessible to family, collaborators, and select others, ensuring that the artist's legacy is preserved and celebrated for generations.

Through Artwork Archive, the daunting task of artist estate planning is transformed into an organized, collaborative, and ultimately rewarding endeavor, ensuring that every brush stroke and story from your loved artist is remembered and cherished.

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