The fine art of foiling thieves: Mary Wilson on a plan to thwart criminals by storing pictures and details of valuables

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THEFTS of art and antiques are very much in fashion, with many items being stolen and delivered to order by well-organised gangs, according to New Scotland Yard.

Except for the very valuable items, which are instantly recognisable, the thieves often rely on being able to sell lesser pieces easily, because no one other than the owner would recognise them.

Items that are not commercially valuable may be priceless to those who own and love them. Should the stolen goods surface, they can only be returned if they can be identified and the rightful owners located.

The quicker a description or photograph of a stolen piece can be distributed to the authorities, the better the chances of it being recovered.

Some people do take pictures of their cherished possessions, which is a good idea, but it takes time to circulate pictures nationally and internationally. In an attempt to speed this process, Control Risks Group has set up an Art & Antiques Recording Service, a secure database of photographs and descriptions, which, if an item is stolen, can be used to circulate details at home and abroad in 24 hours. 'If we get a phone call from a client during the day, we can get the information out within 40 minutes,' said Chris Gordon-Wilson, the managing director.

The company primarily deals with security for big corporations, so this scheme is quite a departure. 'We see it as a preventive service,' said Mr Gordon-Wilson. 'If thieves know they cannot satisfactorily dispose of an item, they are less likely to take it. Our clients are given stickers clearly showing that their valuables are recorded, and that in the event of a theft the details will be transmitted to police departments around the world.'

Christine Glew, the firm's client administrator, goes out to the owner's home to record the items with a state-of-the-art Ion digital image camera. The information on a disc goes straight into the computer, so there is not even the risk of items being seen by anyone processing normal film records.

Descriptions of the property are sent separately to the company to ensure utmost security, and the client's name is recorded in code. All the data are stored off-line, to prevent anyone 'hacking' into the records. In the event of theft, the information is faxed to 89 offices, including Interpol, auction rooms, the Art Loss Register and Trace magazine (circulated among art dealers), then sent again by post.

Museums, country houses and corporate and private collectors will use the scheme. Sir Thomas Ingilby, who owns and lives in Ripley Castle, was one of the first clients. 'I think it is an excellent idea, and gives us a formidable head start if anything is stolen. We have had many items photographed, from china to jewellery to paintings.'

The service is not expensive and can also be used for insurance claims in case of damage. For just a few items, the company charges pounds 15 each for photography and recording. For up to 50 items, it would be pounds 500, and thereafter pounds 10 per item. If the owner already has good-quality photographs, the camera can scan existing prints, negatives or transparencies for a smaller charge of pounds 75 for up to 10 items, pounds 150 for up to 25 items, and pounds 250 for up to 50 items, and thereafter at pounds 5 per item.

These charges are for the first year's storage and, of course, fast dissemination of information if there is a theft. For subsequent years the charge is pounds 1 per item per year.

Control Risks Group, 83 Victoria St, London SW1H OHW, 071-222 1552.

(Photograph omitted)