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Antique theft crisis puts a chip in the old blocks

NEW TECHNOLOGY is coming to the aid of old treasures. In an attempt to curb the rise in thefts of works of art, antique collectors are paying to have a hole drilled in their prized possessions.

Into the opening - about the size of a woodworm hole - is hidden a tiny microchip bug which contains the owner's identity code. A decoding scanner is used to read the number, which is then taken to a data base where details of antique and owner are kept.

Collectors hope the device will help police and dealers identify stolen antiques and enable them to return the thousands of items that are never reclaimed each year. The bug, called a passive electronic transponder or PET, can be implanted into furniture, musical instruments, and even non-wooden objects like clocks and statues. The hole is covered after the implant. The value of the antique is not usually affected by the addition of a small hole.

Costing about pounds 30, the 11mm by 2mm bug contains a miniature aerial and a microchip. Radio waves from the scanner set off the chip, which sends out a code.

Its manufacturer, ID-Link, of Ross-on-Wye, hopes the device will be used throughout the country, creating a electronic security network. At the moment only a few thousands of the bugs have been installed. Only agents who have been carefully vetted are given the pounds 600 scanners.

Philip Whyte, owner of a clock and watch shop in London, said: 'The theft of clocks is enormous and one of the main problems is identifying the owner when something is recovered - the electronic bugs can be easily hidden in clock mechanisms so this should be much easier in the future.'

Edward Boyd, furniture specialist at Christie's Fine Art Auctioneers, described the device as a brilliant idea. 'In most furniture there are lots of unimportant bits of wood you could drill into. I don't think many things would suffer.'

(Photograph omitted)