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RFID could have solved Boston Public Library’s missing art mystery

Boston Public Library officials understandably hit the panic button when two rare paintings were discovered missing from the library in April, including a 1504 engraving by Albrecht Durer, worth $600,000, and a Rembrandt print of lesser value.

After a chaotic two-month search for the items, both pieces of art were found about 80 feet from where they should have been – merely misplaced, not stolen as initially believed.

Tagging high-value artwork can provide numerous benefits.

If the missing artwork was tagged with RFID technology, the items likely would have been located within minutes of being reported missing. More than likely, they would not have been misplaced in the first place.

The case represents a classic example of the labor and time savings provided by RFID in just about any asset tracking application.

During a span of eight weeks, 14 library staff members searched 180,000 of the print stack’s 320,000 items, or about 60 percent of the inventory. In addition, nine offices, workrooms and reading rooms were searched.

Aside from the hundreds of hours put in by library workers, Boston Police and FBI logged countless hours during the investigation.

“In this case it is an inventory control issue, and the answer is that RFID can solve the problem,” says Dave Eastin, a managing partner at ArtTrac, a provider of RFID-based and other technology solutions for high-value cultural assets such as art, jewelry and collectibles.

If the high-value pieces at the BPL carried RFID tags, staff could have simply scanned the stacks with a handheld reader to verify their location. Some readers can be used as a Geiger counter to search for a specific asset, so the two missing pieces could have been searched for exclusively. In addition, workers would not have to open cabinets and the individual boxes that artifacts are stored in.

“One person could have found those paintings with a handheld rather quickly,” says Eastin. “Most of these paintings are in boxes, and you disturb the item each time you open the box. With RFID you can avoid that.”

“We have had the opportunity to work with large private collections in museums and with fine art collections in residential homes,” says Diana Hage, the CEO at RFID Global Solution. “The primary interest in RFID tracking is simply that as objects move from an area they are supposed to be in, an alert is signaled as they pass through a portal. It gives you that early warning signal.”

Eastin says that a corporate client in New York owns a collection of artwork worth millions of dollars. Spread across nine floors in three different buildings, it took one person four weeks to complete an inventory of the artwork. With RFID, three people complete the task in three hours.

While passive RFID would allow a library to scan all items quickly, an active RFID solution would send continuous signals and let personnel know if and when an item was moved or even touched. Eastin notes that active tags are expensive and recommended for high-value items. Additional sensor technology can monitor moisture, humidity and temperature, all crucial to maintaining artwork.

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