Art Theft Research: There’s an App for That

Observer 11 December 2023
By Daniel Grant

Art detective Arthur Brand says there are no more excuses for buying or selling stolen or looted artwork—you can no longer say, ‘I didn’t know.’

You are ready to buy an African mask, a Hindu statue, a Monet painting—anything characterized as cultural property—but you have questions that go beyond price and condition. Is the item authentic? Are there unresolved concerns related to ownership or provenance? Was the piece looted or stolen from a museum, private owner temple or archaeological site? Finding answers to these and related questions is necessary due diligence.

Art theft is rare, and art heists of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum thefts are even rarer, but it happens. Art buyers’ due diligence should always involve checking databases of stolen art and antiquities, and there are two apps prospective buyers and sellers, as well as dealers and museum curators, can consult when such questions arise.

The newest, created by the FBI, allows users to see if a particular item is listed in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, but the bureau’s database is, unfortunately, relatively small, with just about 8,000 artworks. Interpol, the French-based international criminal police organization, maintains a much larger database of more than 52,000 reported stolen pieces of cultural property from around the world that can be searched and viewed with its ID-Art app. It uses facial recognition software—point your phone’s camera at a painting at an art fair, an ethnographic object at a museum or even an objet d’art at an open-air market or antique shop, upload your photo to the app and it searches Interpol’s database, giving you rapid insight into whether the item has been reported stolen or looted.

Interpol’s art theft app is free and available to the public—in the two years it has been available, it has been downloaded 121,000 times by individuals in more than 164 countries. Although still relatively new, the app has also received positive responses from law enforcement and the legal community. Robert Wittman, former founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Art Crime Team and now a private security consultant focusing on art theft and recovery, told Observer that the app “does a great job. It is easy and convenient to use. Whenever I’m asked to find out about some artwork, I always check.” He went on to describe the app as an especially “useful resource in situations like an art fair, where a potential buyer might need to move quickly to get information about an artwork to make a purchasing decision.”

Several other avenues of inquiry into potentially stolen or looted artworks, though these are often geared toward museum officials, art industry insiders and collectors willing to pay sometimes hefty fees for access. Many have overlapping information. There is the German Lost Art Database, which tracks Nazi-looted art and art lost during World War II. The New York City-based International Foundation for Art Research publishes Stolen Art Alerts (largely based on information culled from other sources) in the IFAR Journal. Art Recovery International issues widely disseminated art recovery theft alerts. The largest database of stolen artwork and antiquities, consisting of 700,000 items and maintained by the London-based Art Loss Register, is useful but pricey—a subscription entitling the user to fifty searches runs $1,800. One urgent search costs $400.

“When I’m asked to do due diligence for some artwork, I make a check of all the databases,” Wittman said. “I can tell a client that a certain painting hasn’t been listed, which is really as good as it gets.”

The two apps, and more broadly the various databases, are more helpful in recovering artworks than stolen or looted antiquities because ancient objects continue to be excavated from sites worldwide and such objects haven’t always been subject to methodical cataloging.

The past few years have seen numerous instances of private art buyers, museums and art galleries returning—or repatriating—objects that had been stolen, looted or illegally excavated back to their rightful owners or the countries from which they were taken. In the current calendar year alone, this has included Indian sculptures in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; an ancient Roman bust in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum; five Cambodian and Burmese sculptures from the collection of the Denver Art Museum; and seven looted works by Egon Schiele voluntarily surrendered by the Morgan Library, MoMA and Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Private collectors Norm Werthman and Pete Mechalas in San Diego and New York’s Ronald Lauder also agreed to restitute objects in their collections that had been stolen from their rightful owners. In Lauder’s case, the collector repurchased the Gustav Klimt painting, “The Black Feather Hat,” which had been owned by a Jewish woman in Europe before the Second World War.

Not every call for repatriating artworks goes so smoothly. The Cleveland Museum of Art is contesting a claim from New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg that an ancient Roman headless sculpture in its permanent collection, identified as “Draped Male Figure,” which it purchased for $1.85 million in 1986, should be returned to Turkey where it was illegally excavated. Similarly, Oberlin College is fighting the seizure by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office of an Egon Schiele drawing, “Girl with Black Hair,” which was taken under duress by the Nazis from a Jewish Austrian art collector, Fritz Grunbaum, who was sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1941. The college, which acquired the artwork in 1958, is contesting the constitutionality of the 2016 law requiring it to return the artwork.

Some of the ongoing repatriation of stolen and looted artwork can be attributed to the various databases, according to Arthur Brand, a private art investigator, who called Interpol’s app “a game changer. With this app, there are no excuses anymore for buying or selling stolen artwork. You can’t say anymore, ‘I didn’t know.’ If you don’t use the app, you are negligent.”
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