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Swiss firm uses the Net to close in on art thieves

A reproduction of van Gogh's "The Gardener", stolen from Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art in 1998

(Keystone)

The lucrative trade in stolen works of art may be a little more difficult from now on. A new company in Geneva has created an innovative system which makes stolen treasures harder to sell and easier to track down.

There was a staggering 80 per cent increase in the number of art objects stolen between 1997 and 1999. Only three per cent of them have been recovered, and even then it is difficult to prove who the owner is.

Most of the art treasures stolen in Europe have been sold in the United States and Asia before dealers there have been alerted.

The new start-up, called "artguardian.com", believes it has come up with a way to stop the trade. It can currently take up to a month and a half to alert art professionals who may come into contact with a stolen work of art, but the company says its system will reduce this to around an hour.

"The value we bring is fast, precise, accurate information," says Hubert Clément, operations manager of artguardian.com.

"We want to make the pieces much more dangerous to sell than they are today," he told swissinfo.

There are three key planks to the system: Firstly, the owner can put his prized possessions - or at least photographs and a detailed description of them - in an encrypted "virtual safe", held by artguardian.com.

If the work is stolen, the owner can issue an alert. Once this has been verified by artguardian.com, an e-mail containing the photographs and description is sent to anyone involved in the art world - dealers, police, museums, collectors - who could have an interest in the stolen piece.

"If a dealer is only interested in 18th-century furniture, he will only receive alerts for those pieces," Clément says. As many as 30,000 people could receive an e-mail alert.

The third aspect of the system is a stolen art database, which art dealers can access to check if the work they are intending to buy is legitimate. The fact that the information is transmitted immediately means the chances of finding the piece are greatly increased and its sale is blocked.

The idea for a more effective tracking method came some 20 years ago when the head of the new company, Jean-Luc Chalmin, had a priceless collection of ancient Greek art stolen. None of the 100 items has been recovered.

"It is the Internet which has given us the means to find an effective solution," Clément says.

"Other private and public databases exist, but they are compiled after the theft. We act before the event. Today, a stolen object may have six to eight weeks of impunity. In that time it can cross several borders, so the speed of our system is very important," Clément says.

He says the system was originally devised to help and protect private collectors, but artguardian.com quickly realised that there was also a demand from art dealers.

"The art market has exploded, and dealers are under a lot of pressure. They are obliged to show due diligence. That is, they have to show that they have made all the necessary checks to prove that an object is clean," Clément says, adding that this also adds to the object's value.

"Dealers have been very enthusiastic about artguardian.com because it's all about the credibility of their business. You can be destroyed as a dealer if you are found to have stolen goods in your stock. We need more transparency on the market," he says.

Access to the site is by subscription only. The company aims to have 47,000 subscribers by the end of its first year in business, and 100,000 by mid-2002. These will be mostly private collectors who subscribe to the service as an add-on to an insurance policy.

"We are primarily a business-to-business-to-client type service, although people can subscribe online directly," Clément says.

To be a success, artguardian.com must include as many people as possible, and for that reason the cost has been kept low. There are four categories of subscription, ranging from SFr38 ($22.50) to SFr229 a year. Those receiving the e-mail alert receive the service free.

An alert can be issued by someone who is not a subscriber, but they will have to pay more and the alert will take longer to be sent, as they will not have already registered their pieces in the virtual safe.

Artguardian.com believes there are about five million people in Europe and North America who have art property worth protecting, of whom 650,000 are serious collectors.

by Roy Probert


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