Artist Tips: Checklist for Planning Your Art Estate

Take Charge of Your Legacy as an Artist

For more information about artist estate planning, read Estate Planning for Artists - Let Professionals Manage the Art


A typical working artist produces hundreds of works of art during the course of his or her career; quite a few produce many more. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, you'll begin thinking about your legacy as an artist, and even more importantly what will ultimately happen with your art. Now if you're younger, you probably think you can put this off for years or even decades. But are you aware that regardless of how old you are or when you start, the way you approach your art can enhance its value monetarily as well as in terms significance and collectability starting right now? The same goes for your reputation and standing as an artist, from this moment forward and for all time.

By organizing and documenting your art and your career as an artist, you increase the depth of understanding and appreciation that others have of who you are, why you are an artist, why you make art, what your art means, and how your creative process works. In so doing, you also increase your art's impact, desirability and likely even monetary value. The best part? This is easy to do and takes little more than a few minutes a day.

To see how this works, consider two identical works of art by the same artist (or two very similar works of art by two different artists). One piece is only signed; the other is signed, dated, titled, and accompanied by a brief explanation from the artist about how or why it was made, what process or techniques or materials were involved, and what its intent or meaning or significance is. All else being equal, which piece would you rather own-- the one that's only signed or the one with the additional information? If you're like most people, you'll pick the latter. Would you be willing to pay a little more for the one with the additional information? If you're like most people, you'll likely say yes.

With this in mind, start your organization and documentation process by taking a census of your art. If you're like most artists, you've got a lot of different things in a lot of different places. Account for as much of it as possible. This includes art at home, in your studio, in storage areas, at galleries, on display at any third-party locations, and if you really want to do it right, include sold works too, assuming you're not keeping records on them already. The same goes for information related to your art and your career as an artist like show reviews, photographs, invoices, personal writings or journals, and the like. Correspondences and communications from other artists, friends, dealers and collectors are also worth gathering and organizing when relevant to your art or art career. Wherever these are-- on your computer, in drawers, file cabinets, boxes, albums, under the bed, in the garage-- find, organize, identify and label them. Whatever you do, don't throw them into boxes or containers and leave that work for others; you are the only one qualified for this job.

No matter what you unearth or what condition it's in, don't delete or throw anything away. To repeat: Don't delete or throw anything away. Even if you can't believe you ever made it or wrote it, think it's meaningless, stupid, bad, incompetent, has nothing to do with who or where you are now, what you look like now, how silly you looked in the past, reminds you of unpleasant events, or is objectionable for any other reason, don't delete or throw anything away. Now bear with me here; I'll explain...

The more significant a particular piece of art, saved item or written information is or was in your life, the more it should be kept. We all know that. As for those bits and pieces that might have been significant once, but seem insignificant now, you've got to keep those too (even if they remind you of stuff you'd rather forget). The problem with getting rid of memorable markers of your past is that they often turn out to be critical to understanding your evolution as an artist as well as the evolution of your art and career. So if it was important once, hold on to it because chances are way more than likely it'll become important again.

It's not that you need to keep, sort, organize, and arrange these items for yourself; you do this for the rest of us. You know everything about yourself and your art, inspirations and history as an artist, but we who don't know you that well need more, and we who hardly know you at all but may want to get to know you at some point in the future need lots more. So if you've dug something up and are thinking of throwing it out, show it to at least one third party first, preferably more than one-- and make sure they're knowledgeable professionals, not simply friends, relatives or acquaintances-- like gallery owners, curators, consultants, teachers or even attorneys who know what they're looking at and can evaluate and prioritize art and art-related materials in terms of their overall significance. Rather than act unilaterally, let them weigh in too on what needs to be kept.

Once you've completed your census and have located and gathered your art and art-related materials, focus first on the art. Begin by making sure every completed work or work that you approve of is signed. If it's not signed, sign it. Dates and titles are also good to add, either on the fronts, backs, frames or bases of the art itself, or you can make a separate itemized list, spreadsheet or online database of your art and record the information there (to the best of your ability if some of the works are older). If you have a website, you might even think about having a private "archive" section where keep this information.

When you depart this reality, one thing you don't want to do is leave behind piles of unsigned art because it will then have to be "signed" posthumously in order to identify and authenticate it as having been done by you. In many cases, an "estate stamp" is made with a facsimile of the artist's signature, and unsigned pieces are stamped. Sometimes the art is both estate-stamped and hand-signed by a third party like a family member, relative or executor; sometimes it is signed with the name of one of these people and not stamped; sometimes someone signs the artist's name instead of his or her own; sometimes a document or certificate is provided with each unsigned piece. None of these options are anywhere near as good as having the art signed with original artist's signature.

From a collectability and marketing standpoint, dealers and collectors regard unsigned or posthumously signed or undocumented works of art as less significant and desirable than signed and documented works of art. The first question they inevitably ask when confronted with unsigned art or art signed in ways other than how the artist typically signed it is "Why didn't the artist sign it?" Additional questions follow such as "Did the artist not like it, think it was incomplete, not worthy of a signature, insignificant or inferior?" The moral of the story is simple. Sign every single piece of your art that you regard as complete and worth saving, selling, gifting or donating.

In addition to signing, dating, and titling your art, seriously consider writing a brief explanation about it. Explaining your art means writing down how you make or made it, how your creative process works, what materials you use, what your art means, and other pertinent details. You can do this either piece-by-piece, or by groups or types of art. You don't have to write a novel; a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs at most are often more than enough to convey the essentials. The more people understand about your art, the greater its perceived value in terms of aesthetic, technical, career-related, historical, and process-related perspectives. Additionally, if the art is ever damaged and needs to be repaired or restored, knowing what it's made of is essential information for restorers or conservators to have so it can be restored correctly.

Never assume that people already understand and know everything they need to know about your art. Even if you explain it in person, that doesn't necessarily mean whoever you're explaining it to will remember everything you said or get it right when they pass the information on. Don't think you'll remember everything about your art either, or be able to relate it's history whenever someone asks, or that you'll be able to recall or write it down at any point in the future, because chances are really good that you won't remember everything. Memories fade and facts become foggy. Record them while they're still fresh and clear in your mind. You'll be glad you did. Trust me on this.

You know your art better than anyone else. If you don't document what you know about your art now, sooner or later you're going to forget it. Furthermore, anything you don't end up writing down will eventually have to be reconstructed by other people, and to the best of their abilities and recollections. The bad news? There's no guarantee they'll get it right, or even be willing to take the time to do it (hint: many won't).

Next, organize your art. You can do this chronologically, by medium, subject matter, by series or whatever other criteria you choose. Eliminate anyone's having to guess when particular works of art were made, where they belong in relation to the rest of your art, or how everything fits together. Provide enough in the way of organization and information so that anyone can understand the continuity of your career through your art. By doing this now, you save third parties from trying to piece it all together after you're gone.

And don't forget to price your art-- all of it-- either on the art itself or on an easy-to-understand price list. Include current retail and/or wholesale prices as necessary. If you're not sure what to charge, ask or hire a dealer, gallery owner or appraiser to help you. The more prices you provide along with information on how you arrived at your prices, the better. Depending on how your career progresses, you can adjust these prices anytime.

When you're done with your art, it's time to organize the art-related materials. Do this by date, like you're putting together your autobiography and chronology of your career. If you come across gaps, fill them. Try to make the result as complete, continuous and easy to understand as possible. Take a lesson from Andy Warhol, perhaps the most thoroughly obsessive self-documenter of all time. One of the most fascinating aspects of his legacy is the huge amount incidental information and details he left behind, materials that continue to enrich our understanding of his art and life on so many levels.

Seriously consider making recordings or videos about your art and career and include them with your other materials. No matter how young or old you are, the best time to start is now. Make one per month or one per year if you want-- whatever tells your story. As you inevitably age, these items will become increasingly significant and valuable-- to you as well as everyone else. Even a relatively brief recording or video of yourself talking about your art and your life as an artist can add immeasurably to your legacy. You can also make videos of yourself at work in your studio, answering questions about your art, meeting people at one of your openings, or explaining particular works of art. If you want, hire someone to create more professional presentations.

Finally, have a plan for what you want to happen with your art after you're gone, and make sure your descendents, executor and other relevant parties understand it. Major problems can result if art from an artist's estate when it is unclear who gets what work, or everything gets sold or dumped onto the market without a well-thought-out plan. No plan means the art gets offered or sold randomly and without exclusivity, shopped around indiscriminately to anyone who the inheritors think might be interested in seeing or buying it, offered at arbitrary prices to anyone who wants it, placed onto the market in bulk, or worst of all... thrown out. No plan also means people in the art business likely have little confidence how the estate is being run, and at worst, no one will want to get involved. A poorly planned-out and controlled estate is never good for an artist's reputation, so put together a long-term strategy, and make sure your heirs understand and follow it.

Additional points to keep in mind when planning your estate:

* Provide your executor with complete contact information for any galleries, representatives, agents and other relevant parties who know or handle your art along with instructions on how to work with those people. If you haven't found individuals or galleries with art business experience to represent or handle your work, now is a good time to start looking.

* Make sure your executor, heirs, galleries, agents and representatives understand what you want done with your art (without trying to micro-manage). Never assume that people automatically know what to do. Put your instructions or preferences in writing.

* Give all concerned parties opportunities to ask questions, offer their input and opinions, and make suggestions regarding the future of your art and your legacy as an artist.

* Leave clear instructions on how your art is to be divided among family members, institutions, galleries and other relevant parties. Make sure everyone understands what they're going to get and, if necessary, why they're getting it. Also be clear about who doesn't get what.

* All instructions should be sufficiently detailed in order to prevent infighting, arguments, or legal disputes over who owns or controls what, and how much that art is worth. You'd be surprised how often people fight over estates; do you absolute best to minimize, and hopefully eliminate any chances of this happening.

* Attorneys are often necessary in order to structure, draft and finalize agreements. Avail yourself of their services.

Take charge now and control your art destiny.


In case you're interested, I've done and continue to do a ton of estate work with artists and their descendents as well on how to identify, gather, organize, document, archive and present the art as well as materials related to it. If you need assistance in this regard now, or are an artist interested in enlisting my services at any point in your art career, email or call 415.931.7875.


Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and this article is not to be taken as legal advice. If you have any questions of a legal nature, speak with appropriate attorneys, estate planners or similar professionals who can answer them, while also making sure any legal concerns, issues, or documents that are part of your estate planing are in order.

Jules Olitski art

(art by Jules Olitski)

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