Lost and Found; The Use of International Art Registries For Identifying and Tracking Valuables

With the introduction of insurance in the United States in about 1732, collectors added to their list of concerns record-keeping for insurance purposes, proof of ownership in case of a claim, and reducing risks for insurer and insured alike. Traditionally, when a painting is stolen from a private collection, a flood destroys valuable art, an expensive gemstone is substituted for a cheap fake by a crooked jeweler, etc., the owner scrambles around for records and photos which may or may not exist, and then reports the loss to the authorities. These days, the owner might also submit information to a registry which lists the item as stolen, and attempts recovery. Many collectors today are also turning to methods of object identification, which could consist of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Tags), DNA encryption, laser inscription, and so on. (For additional information on object tagging technologies see Emerging Technologies; a Brave New World for Museums and Collectors, Christie Alderman, Chubb Collectors, July 2007 www.chubbcollectors.com/Vacnews/index.jsp?form=2&ArticleId=230)

While each of these approaches has its merits, the best result is produced by utilizing both components: a secure, tamper-evident, unforgeable means of identifying the item, and a central, secure database where information can be stored and made accessible to those who need it. In addition, the most effective use of these new technologies is made when the collector, rather than waiting for an incident to occur, is proactive, marking each piece in his or her collection in a way that uniquely identifies it, and registering it – with full description, photos, value, applicable documents of authenticity and provenance – in a central database.

Acid-free materials and other precautions ensure that identifiers will not damage items in any way, and the identifier, properly used, will add value to the piece, not detract from it. Laser etching obviously leaves a permanent mark and must be applied in such a way that it does not lower the value of the item (jewelry, gemstones, etc.). Whichever systems you choose for identification should, ideally, conform to a standard for describing fine art and cultural objects established by the J. Paul Getty Museum. Known as Object ID (http://icom.museum/object-id/about.html), the standard provides a checklist of types of information that should be recorded for each item in a collection.

Once a collection is tagged, data can be uploaded to one of the available online databases. The record in the database matches a code which is built into the identifier on the object being registered. The database should provide free, immediate access to insurance adjusters and law enforcement agencies as well as to buyers of art, jewelry and other valuables, and the database record should be made known to the insurance company when the piece is insured. If this piece is stolen, it can instantly be reported and listed as stolen. In addition, before making a purchase a collector could first check the database of stolen art, and also check for an identifier on a piece. It would then be possible to go to the central database for information on prior ownership and provenance of the piece.

Existing Registry Systems

There are a variety of public and private companies which provide various kinds of registries or databases of art and valuables. The larger international registries used by law enforcement, insurance companies, auction houses, and others in the art world include Art Loss Register, the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, and Interpol.

Art Loss Register (ALR – www.artloss.com) is a private company founded to address art theft or loss after it occurs. Its origins go back to the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) which, in 1976, began publishing the “Stolen Art Alert.” By 1986 IFAR had to keep track manually of 20,000 records of stolen art. ALR was founded in 1991, funded by members of the insurance and art industries. Listing an item as stolen on the ALR website costs $20 per item with a sliding scale as more items are listed. Subscribers pay $500 a year for which they can conduct up to 30 searches of the database. Or, you can conduct a single search for $45. Access to the database is limited to subscribers. More recently, ALR introduced what they call the “pre-loss database” where anyone can register their valuables with full descriptions (for the same fees as above) to prove ownership of the items. Chubb has a long-term relationship with Art Loss Register’s post-loss system.

National Stolen Art File (NSAF – www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/arttheft/arttheft.htm) Through NSAF, the FBI maintains a computerized index of reported stolen art and cultural properties for the use of law enforcement agencies worldwide. The NSAF contains images and physical descriptions of stolen and recovered objects, as well as information on investigated cases. There is no public access to this database.

Interpol (www.interpol.int) operates an international database of stolen art. They provide a DVD that lists about 20,000 works of art and cultural property updated every two months (full year subscription, or 6 DVDs, costs $605). They send out art theft notices to law enforcement agencies worldwide. This is not an online service. The DVDs are the only way to access the information.

Swift-Find (www.mythings.com/transition/transition.aspx) is a website that provides a registry of new, used and stolen valuables. It operates two databases, MyThings, which Swift-Find describes as “a free service that helps you organize your possessions online,” and Trace, which is a global database of lost or stolen goods. The database can be searched for free, and reporting of lost or stolen items is also free. Swift-Find offers premium services in addition to these basic free services.

Both Sides of the Coin

While collectors and museums can match any object tagging technology with any of the available on-line registries, a novel approach is offered by Neglia Services, Inc. (www.microtagit.com) and the Fine Art Registry (FAR www.fineartregistry.com). Founded in 2000, Neglia Services, Inc. and the Fine Art Registry offer both a patented system of tagging, and a central, secure database of art, collectible, jewelry, gemstones and other valuables. It was established to provide an affordable version of these services for artists, collectors, museums, galleries and others, and can be accessed for free by those doing due diligence, looking to see if an item is stolen, and so on.

Neglia Services, Inc. & Fine Art Registry offer three different ways of identifying the objects which are being registered. One is a high tech, holographic tag or seal which has a unique number and five levels of built-in security. Suitable for flat art and larger objects, the tag is acid free and virtually unforgeable. If removed, it leaves behind identifiable traces. There is also a MicroTag™, one sixteenth of an inch in diameter. It carries the same levels of security but is used for smaller objects or for covert tagging. The 2D barcode is readable with a special device. The third method is laser engraving which is used for jewelry, small metal objects, gemstones, even polymers and paper, etc. The engraving is of a unique identifier and also includes 2D barcoded information.

The Neglia Services, Inc. & FAR holographic tag including full service can be purchased through Neglia Services, Inc. Tag prices include registration in their database. Neglia Services, Inc. & Fine Art Registry compare their system for marking and registering fine art, jewelry, and collectibles to the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) system for vehicles: a virtually indelible unique marking which matches a record in a secure database.

Whichever of Neglia Services, Inc. & FAR’s tagging methods is used, the object is registered in their secure database together with photos and full description, value, certificates of authenticity and any other relevant documents. The items can be shown in a portfolio on the website or hidden from view by the owner. The record is permanent. When items are sold or change hands, ownership is transferred securely online so that provenance of all pieces can be maintained.

The Best System for You

Technology has opened a door behind which there are a great many variables, and it pays to do some research. “The Fine Art Registry is unique,” says Rich Neglia, CEO of Neglia Services (www.negliaservices.com), a jewelry and collectibles appraisal and replacement company that works directly with the insurance companies. Neglia Services is currently partnering with FAR to provide a unique service to its customers, believing that FAR’s dual technology of secure tagging and permanent database relieves some of the confusion their clients might encounter when trying to achieve the same thing using a combination of unrelated technologies.

Yet, if your goal is to know when an object has been moved from its position, RFID tags might be the superior option. RFID tags can cost anywhere from 30¢ to $100 each depending on the application, and sensors are also needed which adds to the cost, but they can trigger an alarm when a valuable is moved without authorization, and are particularly useful in a museum setting, or on a private estate.

Technology now makes it possible to accurately and securely identify and register fine art, collectibles, jewelry and other valuables. Whichever system you choose, the result can be potentially lower insurance premiums, better organization of valuables, a smoother, more secure relationship between insured and insurer, and peace of mind all around.

For more information, contact Neglia Services, Inc. at 800-910-3150 or them on the Web at www.microtagit.com or www.negliaservices.com.