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The Art of Tracking Masterpieces

Several museums in Rotterdam are using RFID to reduce the cost of tracing the movements of works by Rembrandt, Renoir, Picasso and other masters.
Because the RFID tags can be read through wood frames and most cardboard and plastic packaging, the tags can be placed almost anywhere on the item and be read. But for efficiency, it's best to put the tags in the same place on every painting, every sculpture and every piece of furniture in the same collection. That makes it possible to locate and scan the tag in seconds.

A block reader
A pilot at the Kröller Müller Museum was aimed at determining the best method of attaching tags to works of art and the best location. Staff spent two days attaching tags to the complete collection. Different methods were used, including adhesives and staples to the traveling frames of paintings.

The museum didn't want the art works to be tagged directly, so the tags were placed on traveling frames used to protect the paintings. When a work is put in an exhibition, the tag is taken off the work and placed behind the title plate in the showcase. Helicon worked with the museum to develop a manual with instructions for tagging different types of artworks. The manual is given to anyone who buys the Talking Tag system.

The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam tested tags on paintings in storage. Forty large canvasses were tagged and placed in a storeroom. A gate reader was set up at the entrance to the facility. The paintings were put on a trolley and read as they passed through the gate reader. The reader could identify up to six paintings stacked on a trolley. Helicon says that with slight modifications to the system, the antenna should be able to read about 20 tags as they pass by the gate.

And the Van Gogh Museum worked with the Dutch Central Investigation and Information Department of the Ministry of Justice to research the potential security applications of RFID. Police to identify the authenticity of a painting or to identify a stolen work, if hidden in the frame of the painting, could use the tags.

One concern, however, was whether the tags, which communicate via radio waves, would work with other security systems, some of which also use radio waves. One is the infrared system used in the showcase. The other is a motion sensor, which trips when a painting is moved. Both communicate with alarm systems via radio waves. But the tags didn't interfere with these, or with magnetic tags used to trip an alarm at the entrance and exits of the museum.

The tracking system worked with few complications. Even though the museum storerooms have large metal shelves. There was little problem scanning items. Tags were actually placed on the shelves and read to establish the location of items in storage. But the key is establishing proper procedures.

"The system is as fool proof as the people using the system," says Jaap van der Burg, a director at Helicon. "You have to establish procedures for moving works of art. The tags just facilitate the process."

The museums found that that the RFID tags greatly reduced the time it takes to record information about the movement of works of art, both internally and externally. That reduces labor costs. But there is a great deal of labor associated with tagging thousands of works of art.

"The museums that participated in the pilots do want to implement the system. It's a question of when, how and how expensive is it," says van der Burg.

He says the Stedelijk Museum is planning to relocate items in storage and they will be tagged during that process. The Kröller Müller has already redone its inventory and has no big move planned. So it is trying to determine when is the best time to add the tags.

"Labor is the most expensive part of the tagging process," says van der Burg. "If you can attach the tags during another project, such as a relocation of inventory, the labor is minimal. But if you have to do it from scratch, it can be very expensive."

The labor savings can help the system pay for itself over time. And there are other benefits as well. Bar codes only identify the item, but it is possible to store information in the tag, such as the specific conditions for protecting the object. So the information is always available, even if someone handling the work doesn't have access to the database.

The system can also be integrated with a museum's disaster plans. In the event that a fire or other serious threat to the collection, the tags can identify the most valuable objects that need to be evacuated first. And if the RFID tag system saves just one Renoir or Picasso, it will be worth every cent invested in it.

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