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Documentation and Inventory

You found it, you’ve cleaned it, you’ve repaired it. Now is a good time to document and photograph your new acquisition, before you pack it away. Once packed away, the less you disturb it the better.

If you are a seller or store owner, odds are you already entered that great new Ceil Chapman dress in your inventory. If not, now is the time. You know what you have in it and what you have done to it.

Note the date purchased, the vendor, the cost, and assign your inventory number. Note repair or cleaning costs. If you do know the provenance, please make a note of it in your inventory. It’s is so easy to lose this information, and it will add to the monetary value of the piece. And it can be substantial amount. I sold an 1837 wedding dress several years ago that would normally have brought in the $400 range that went for over $1000 because I knew whose it was and was fortunate that a local museum saw it and wanted it.

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If you are a collector, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you keep an inventory record of your collection. Make a record and keep a copy with your insurance agent, in a safe deposit box or in a fireproof box. The value of vintage clothing and accessories has really skyrocketed in the last 20 years. It would be a shame to lose a collection to fire or flood, and be unable to collect on a claim. Because when you collect, you get to start shopping again.

Thorough documentation will help with the common misconception that’s all just old clothes and doodads. And should the day come you wish to sell your collection, you will already have photo and an inventory prepared that you can show prospective brokers or purchasers. An added bonus is that you will have on hand photos for PR purposes.

For your personal records, I suggest you have a form that is easy to access on your computer. You want to record a fair amount of information:

  • Inventory Number – Assign a number. Any system will do really, as long as you understand it and are consistent. I have a very simple D = dress, SH = shoes, H = hat, etc. I assign a number when I purchase.
  • What is the item?
  • Current storage location of the item
  • Who owned it?
  • When did they own it?
  • Approximate era
  • Description of the garment, including color, materials, trims
  • Any labels
  • Condition, including any cleaning or restoration that has been done
  • Where did you acquire it
  • Who did you purchase it from?
  • If you have the original owner information and any pertinent details, enter those
  • If you have documents or photos pertaining to it, note those as well
  • Take a clear photo and paste it onto the form you have devised

You should keep a paper copy as well as digital. It’s a bit easier to refer to. And you definitely want a back up copy should your computer collapse!

Lets talk about the photo

This is no time to get fancy and doll up a background or do borders. You want, simple well lit photo against a clean background. A white sheet will do. You want to be able to see the garment and its details. You may want to take a detail shot of complex trimmings. You may also want to take a shot of the labels.

Once you have it all packed away in blue acid free boxes (which all look exactly alike) you will be so happy to be able to put your finger on an item without having to open very single box. Or having to wander room to room, asking yourself, “where did I put that beaded cloche that matches this dress?” Or the sad moment when you say, “I know that dealer said who this 18th Century gown belonged to. Now as I enter my declining years and my memory is shot, I sure wish I had written all information down.”

As part of your documentation, you may want to file research along with your inventory sheets. I have started to print out any auction results, internet store listings or research photos from the web that are extremely similar to an item in my collection. Should the day come that you need to assign a hard value to that Adrian suit, this could be very helpful.

As to assigning value. This can be tough on your own treasures. It is hard to be objective. You know what you paid for it. But is that the actual value? For insurance, you want to assign a replacement value, or what it would cost to replace the item at this time. For resale, you want to establish a fair market value.

At one time, I did actually pay a museum appraiser to come and do formal appraisals on my collection. It was very, very helpful. That was before the internet, though. I think you can do a fair amount of research on going prices yourself these days. Be sure to check out various sources. Ebay is only one venue. There are several auction houses who have online auctions that can be informative, as well as brick and mortar shop prices and website values.

If you do hire an appraiser, get a specialist who knows textiles. A general line antiques appraiser will not necessarily know any more than you do. And appraisers are not cheap. You will pay an hourly rate including travel time and their expenses.

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by Hollis Jenkins-Evans