Opera costumes and the value of object biographies

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Journal of Documentation, 2018, 74 (6), pp. 1162 - 1174
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© 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited. Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to observe the nature of documentation and the description used in object biographies by an auction house catalogue and an online museum collection database in relation opera costumes. This research aims to discuss the issues of cultural and economic value in relation to objects in the art world, and examine examples of object biographies for opera costumes that are sold at an auction and exhibited in a museum. Design/methodology/approach: The object biographies are compared from an auction house catalogue and the online museum collection database, based on two factors: costumes worn by a famous singer and costumes designed by a famous designer. Findings: This study identified the valuation methods of auction houses and museums, including accounting for the market value and fair value, as well as social and cultural values. The nature of the documentation also clearly shows the different purpose of the object biographies. For auction houses the biography needs to be short and specific as it provides sufficient information and is read out at the auction, while art catalogues can also be used by experts as part of the conversation to understanding heritage value, and will also be viewed and used by researchers, investors, other auction house specialists and art world professionals. Research limitations/implications: By comparing two institutions, auction houses and museums, this study has shown that the information that is documented and how it is presented in object biographies is determined by the goals of the institutions. These goals may vary or overlap in providing information, demonstrating cultural importance, to be spoken allowed to an audience and make sales, or to educate, conserve and preserve. Practical implications: This study shows that to some extent museum online databases display their collection removed from cultural context, with an isolated image of the item, and in an organised, digitally accessible manner. A potential implication is that museums should not only digitally catalogue an item, but also provide discussion and the cultural background and significance of the item. Social implications: Auction catalogues are written for a specific event (the auction), while the online museum collection database is meant to be a permanent record, which aims to digitally preserve objects and provide access to images and information to a general audience, and further could be edited with amendments or new information when future research or events lead to potential updates. Originality/value: This study adds to the discourse on approaches to the understanding of costumes as an art object of significance and their potential cultural, economic and heritage value, particularly as represented in the documentation of object biographies.
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