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Art Dealer Finds Beauty in RFID Tracking System

The French Art Network is employing active RFID tags to track its art inventory in near-real time, while also deterring internal theft.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jul 02, 2008Reeling from the blow dealt by Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent slump in tourism, Jack Sutton found that running The French Art Network, a collection of family-owned fine-art stores located throughout The Big Easy, had become anything but easy.

Sutton and his partner considered opening new locations outside of New Orleans, but they were unsure how to keep tabs on employees managing high-value artwork in another city. They then heard about radio frequency identification, which opened up new landscapes for them. "We found a location in Carmel, Calif.," Sutton says, "but we were scared about shipping art—which sells for anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000 each—2,000 miles away, and having a stranger running the store."

The French Art Network uses active RFID tags and interrogators to perform automated inventory, while also helping to protect the items from thieves.
The situation changed in March 2007, when Sutton began discussing his dilemma with an acquaintance, Ted Kostis, president of RFID systems developer and integrator Silent Partner Technology. Kostis suggested Sutton open remote locations and employ RFID to gain improved visibility of and control over his stock at all of his retail locations.

An RFID system, Kostis claimed, would allow Sutton and his staff to run automated (and more frequent) inventory counts, in order to get a handle on the whereabouts of the 75 to 150 pieces of art at each retail location (there are currently four such sites in New Orleans). "We used to take inventory once a month—though, in reality, it was more like each quarter or semi-annually," Sutton says. "And there was a high error rate between what the database said was in each store and what was actually there."

The New Orleans art gallery uses light-colored or painted antennas (as indicated in this photo by the arrow) to keep them as non-visible as possible.
Within six months, Kostis and his staff developed a system for The French Art Network that uses active RFID tags and interrogators to perform automated inventory, while also helping to protect the items from thieves. The system has been deployed at the four New Orleans retail locations, as well as at a new store in Carmel. Kostis says the company also plans to deploy the system at three new locations—one more in Carmel and two in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by August. "This [RFID] system has given me confidence to go ahead with more locations," Sutton says, "because I have more control now."

As each new piece of art is received at The French Art Network's main warehouse and distribution center, located in New Orleans, an employee inputs the name of the artwork—as well as other details, such as the artist's name, a description of the piece, the cost and the sale price—into a database developed for the application by Silent Partner Technology. The worker then takes an RFID tag, made by Wavetrend and distributed by AAID Security Solutions, and reads its pre-encoded number, thereby associating the tag ID with the artwork's database entry. That person then attaches the tag to the artwork with a Velcro strip.

The inventory database is Web-based, and is refreshed every ten minutes so that an up-to-date inventory list is made available to each store's staff six times per hour. Once a piece of art is tagged and entered into inventory, it is shipped to a particular store—or store managers can put in requests to have the art shipped to their store.

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