Unique Inventory Number System

The Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) initiative provides artists with resources and instruction in the areas of career documentation, inventory management, and legacy planning. This is one in a series of DIY Archive Toolkit resources, providing practical tips in organizing and preserving your body of work.

A unique numbering system allows you to identify and track each work you have made. The number should be listed both on the artwork (or packaging) and on the record. When creating an inventory numbering system, you should take into account the way you work. Inventory numbers are critical for artists who make many untitled works, prints, or who work in multiples.

A standard example includes your name, the category of work (for example drawing versus painting), the year the work was completed, and a number for that individual work. The numbers given to individual pieces are usually chronological within the year or category of work.

Keeping your numbering system simple is best. This number is designed to track your work and not necessarily contain more information than “artist” (JD), “year” (09), “type” (PG), and “painting number made that year” (001). Using two place holders or digits for artist, year, and type are more than adequate. This inventory numbering system is only about your career, so unless you've been able to make art for over 100 years, 2 numbers are perfect. The less you have to write makes a clearer and easier to read code.

Three digits for the “painting number” made that year is, in most cases more than adequate as well, giving you 999 paintings for that given year. Using this system “JD09PG001” is easy to read and computer friendly. Alternating two letters with numbers is easier to read as well. Periods can be hard to read on your work and can leave a serious dimple on the face of delicate work. Dashes and other symbols might not make your job any easier and may confound computers. Two digits for the year will allow for a century of “art tracking” information.

A simple code for “type of work” is best. For instance: DW for drawing, PG for painting, PU for public art, SC for sculpture, and so on. Print edition numbers can be managed in a database or spreadsheet, further reducing confusing inventory numbers. In essence, every work of art leaving your studio should have a number on it, paintings, sculptures, and every print in an edition. Each editioned print should be considered an independent work of art.

Ultimately, you should decide upon a numbering system that has meaning for you and is easy to read. Changing it later on can be costly and difficult.

Example: JD09DW027 – Jane Doe, 2009, Drawing 27 (27th drawing made in 2009)

This is the 27th drawing Jane Doe made in 2009 (It should be noted that this numbering system is for tracking rather than knowing exactly which drawing was the 27th made in 2009. This system is the key when using a database. Similar to a “bar code”, this number will take you to the exact piece in the database. One benefit would be eliminating hours of sorting for those artists who use the same titles, on many works spanning many years.

Unknown year of creation:
For some artists, there is a lot of undated work. If you can not remember the year, choose a number to signify the year is unknown. This number should correspond to a year that you will never be creating artwork, such as your year of birth. You want to keep track of the work that has an unknown year.

Example: JDUKDW042 or JDXXDW042 - Jane Doe’s 42nd drawing from an unknown year. (“unknown” is represented by UK or XX)

How to use your inventory number:
An inventory number should exist both on the artwork itself and in the artwork record.

  • the number should also be listed on sales receipts, consignment forms, and exhibition loan records.
  • inventory numbers should never be altered, especially once the work has “entered the world.”
  • consider making inventory numbers for work that has been sold, given away, or perhaps even destroyed.

Previous numbering system:
Galleries also create and assign inventory numbers to your work. However, keep in mind that these numbers reflect a system designed for their organization and have meaning for them, not for you. As such, they are not meant to take the place of your inventory numbers. You should list the gallery number alongside your own inventory number in your archive record or database for that piece, connecting your inventory number to theirs.

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