Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - NOVEMBER 2019

Thwarting thieves involves cooperation of staff and customers

I've previously addressed this topic in Discover Vintage America – but almost 15 years ago! I thought the issue bears re-visiting. Sometimes, dealers complain about the fatalistic attitude exhibited by some mall owners when confronted with reports of theft from dealer displays. "Not much we can do about it," seems to sum up the attitude.

This carved opal with great opalescence is the sort of thing that might be attractive to a thief. Things that would make it an easy target for an opportunistic theft include leaving it in its display box on an open-display shelf or failing to train staff in how to open a display case to show merchandise in response to a customer request. (Yes, there's a right way to do it!)

At the same time, many smaller dealers do not carry inventory insurance, and they're not prepared to chalk repetitive losses up to "the cost of doing business." So, what's a dealer or shop owner/manager to do?

Take precautions

Ripping off an antique store during business hours is nothing more than a glorified form of shoplifting, and most shoplifting is opportunistic. Dealers: Think twice about exposing valuable and easily pocketable "smalls" in an open booth. Multi-dealer shop owners should be able to offer a secure space for the occasional small valuable offered by an open-booth seller who doesn't normally deal in these items.

Keep records

Shop owners: Effective theft prevention starts with analyzing the particular vulnerabilities of a given shop, and that's hard to do if you don't keep records of theft. This doesn't have to be time-consuming. Make yourself a form that you can copy and quickly fill out whenever your establishment sustains a theft. Log onto the form such information as:

• Item stolen
• Value of item
• Type of rental space from which item was taken (e.g., booth or case)
• Location of booth or case (e.g., floor/area of building)
• Date and time theft detected
• Any special circumstances of theft (e.g., employee distracted while opening a case)

Such incident sheets will tend to highlight patterns of theft, thereby helping you to design procedures to thwart it.

Enlist local law enforcement

If theft is a problem at your shop, chances are it's a problem for other shops in your area. Consider organizing local shop owners for a meeting with police, held at the police station or other mutually convenient location, to discuss the broader problem of antique theft and to solicit police recommendations on dealing with it. Report to your dealers about what you're doing to follow up with law enforcement concerning specific thefts.

Refuse to be part of the problem

As advice for both dealers and shop owners, read local papers and trade publications and make note of items taken in recent thefts so that you don't become the unwitting recipient of stolen merchandise. Avoid unknown sellers in problem fields such as Middle and Far Eastern antiquities and "garden" decor that looks as if it could have come from someone's cemetery plot.

Enlist customer support

Most customers are not thieves, so they lack a personal context for theft prevention measures they may find offensive, such as asking them to park their purses or coats at the front desk or in their car. An informed public will be more likely to cooperate with these measures. Consider offering visitors to your shop a poster or brochure that talks about the problem of theft in the antiques industry. Encourage your customers to be part of the solution: "If you see something, say something to shop staff."

Hire competent employees - and pay them

The best anti-theft devices any shop will ever have are vigilant employees. Staff needs to be competent in assessing and responding appropriately to security risks. They should be discreetly aware of what's going on around them so as to deter opportunistic theft without making the legitimate customer feel uncomfortable.

To get that level of competence, you'll need to pay and train for it. Make sure staff are clear about what you expect them to do (i.e., report to management) when they see suspicious activity. Thieves exploit visible and often chronic vulnerabilities, including the indifference of under-appreciated staff. Well-treated employees with high morale are your first line of defense and your bottom line in theft prevention.

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at