Inclusive Object Toolkit - SANDBOX

Art Catalogs

Art Catalogs

An essential type of publication in the field of art and cultural heritage is the "catalog." Art catalogs are designed to thoroughly document art and cultural objects and help researchers track what artworks exists, where they currently are located, and where they've been since their creation until the current time.

They also generally provide good images of the art objects, reliable descriptive information about the objects, and basic or core secondary literature about the objects and the artists that create them. For catalogs that document a particular artist's work, they will also very often provide biographical information and timelines.

The three basic types of catalogs are described below. Each section provides tips on how best to locate these essential publications.

Key Concepts

When the creator of an artwork is not absolutely certain, the attribution reflects the generally agreed upon creator of the work.

A complete enumeration of items arranged systematically with descriptive detail.

The total output of an artist, her or his complete body of work.

The listing of the chain of ownership of a work of art, forming an essential part of its history. More complete definition.

Find Catalogs That Document:

Catalogue Raisonné is the published catalog of an artist's entire oeuvre, or portions of it by medium or chronology. 

They are essential to find provenance, chronologies, physical descriptions, illustrations, related bibliography, and basic scholarship concerning a particular piece of art or an artist's complete body of work. They are also good sources for basic biographical information about artists and images of artwork.

To find them in Catalyst, our online catalog:

To find published and forthcoming catalogues raisonnés, whether our library has them or not, use the IFAR Catalogues Raisonnés database. If you discover a catalog that the library doesn't have, you may either request to use it via Interlibrary Services or contact the librarian who purchases materials for the library to suggest a purchase.

Museums publish essentially two types of catalogs:

Museum Collection Catalogs - document institutions' permanent collections partially or in their entirety, by providing descriptive, systematic lists of objects in an institution.

Exhibition Catalogs - document the content and themes of temporary exhibitions and serve as those exhibitions' permanent record.

What do you find in museum catalogs?

  • Provenance, physical descriptions, illustrations.
  • Related bibliography, basic scholarship about particular works of art, the history of an institution or collection.
  • Scholarly and cultural contexts surrounding artworks, artists, and institutions.

Finding each type of catalog separately in Catalyst, our online catalog, is difficult. Search in a general way that will retrieve both collection and exhibition catalogs in one search result:

Experiment! Add multiple limits to the initial search to find more specific information, such as:

The key to success using Catalyst for this purpose is creativity and flexibility!

Auction catalogs are used mostly by galleries that sell art and by museums who purchase art for their collections. They are also very useful for curators who track provenance or investigate art attributions.

Since they have limited utility for scholarship, MSEL has only limited access to auction records, including some printed and microfilm catalogs, mostly historical, from major sources:

Here's a more general list of auction-related catalogs.

Articles in journals and trade publications may have some auction information. You may wish to search Art Full Text to see if articles have been published on the object you're researching.


Sample public catalog entry from the Baltimore Museum of Art

Bust of Tethys on a Marine Background3rd century

76 1/4 x 53 5/8 x 2 5/16 inches

Stone and lime mortar

Antioch subscription fund

Daphne, Syria (present day Turkey)


Antioch Court

The catalog serves as a fundamental information package that helps structure the meaning museums make from objects. Its parts include:

  • The registration number – a unique and permanent number given to each object as a form of identification
  • Object name – use simple terms, in common usage, so that people from different backgrounds can find the object they are looking for
  • Title – a discretionary field used for books, artworks, titled documents etc.
  • Description - the aim of the catalog description is to provide a clear, concise picture that enables another reader of the worksheet to visualize the object and recognize it immediately if searching for it. 
  • Distinguishing marks - examples include labels, signatures, serial numbers, patent dates and trade-marks.
  • Dimensions- accurate measurements of height, length, width, diameter and weight (where relevant)
  • Condition and completeness – a general physical description of the condition of the object as it appears when cataloged
  • Make – details about the person/people involved in creating, producing or manufacturing the object (name, role, address)
  • Place and date of manufacture
  • Provenance – history of the object’s use, previous owners etc.  
  • References – books or research files used to obtain catalog information.
  • Location - the current location of the object and the date it was recorded
  • Statement of significance - the meaning and values of an item or collection, or what makes it important.
  • Handling/storage/display requirements – any specific requirements needed for the preservation of the object.
  • Acquisition details – name and contact details of donor or where/whom the object was purchased (include cost and receipt number)
  • Conservation treatment notes