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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
The active tag operates at 433 MHz and employs a proprietary air interface protocol. A network of readers is installed within each store, enabling each tag within that store to be read, regardless of its location. The tag also provides a feature that fulfills one of Sutton's main objectives: making the tag tamper-evident. "If someone can just peel off the tag and leave it in the store, the [RFID] system does me no good," Sutton says. "So Ted [Kostis] spent a good amount of time working on that requirement and has made the system pretty bullet-proof."

The Wavetrend tag includes a magnetic switch that is engaged by a magnet embedded in the Velcro strip used to mount the tag on the artwork. When a tag is mounted, the switch is triggered, and as the tag is later removed, the switch opens and that event is logged in the tag's memory. Each piece of art is also assigned a bar code, associated with the tag number in the back-end database.

The RFID system enables the staff to run automated (and more frequent) inventory counts.
When a piece of art is purchased, an employee scans the bar code and removes the RFID tag. The software then associates the tag's removal with the sale of the artwork to which it was attached. If the tag is removed but the bar code is not read, this triggers an alert in the software, which is transmitted to the store manager via e-mail. The manager can then search for the art, based on its last known location within the store, and investigate whether the tag has been removed without the piece being sold.

What's more, because the tag keeps a running tab of the number of times its magnetic switch is engaged, the software can also deduce when a tag is removed from one piece of art and attached to another—presumably a lower-cost item—in an attempt to purchase the item at the lower cost.

In addition, the software tracks the locations of tagged art pieces as they move from one retail location to another, based on each piece's tag being read by an interrogator mounted above the store's back-room exit door, and later read by a reader mounted above the door at another location. Art is often moved between the New Orleans stores throughout a normal business day as customers make requests to view particular pieces.

According to Sutton, the software is configured so that he receives an e-mail every time a piece sells, or if a tag is removed without a related sale. He says he has not pinpointed any unethical behavior, based on the tag reads, to any particular stores. "The employees understand the system and know how it works," he states, "and I don't think they want to test me. They know they'll get caught."

Still, Sutton says, if the system prevents even one or two paintings from being stolen or sold at a lower price, that could provide a return on investment in just one year.

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