The FBI’s National Stolen Art File (NSAF) began in the late ’70s with a simple mission: Enlist the public’s help in recovering lost or stolen masterpieces. Since then, the FBI reports that over 8,000 items have been listed in the database.
Earlier this week, the agency announced the project’s next chapter: the NSAF mobile app.
“One of the biggest evolutions for NSAF was making it publicly available,” says Colleen Childers of the FBI’s Art Crime Program in a statement. “Now, with the new mobile upgrade that we’ve undergone, we want to continue to push to make it a more user-friendly platform.”
The app, which is free to download, currently lists more than 4,000 stolen objects, sometimes accompanied by photos. These items range from watercolors to altar pieces to wine coolers. Users can examine the listings and compare them to items they own, items they see or items they’re thinking of purchasing. Then, if they see something suspicious, they can submit tips to the FBI.
As critics and supporters alike have pointed out, the app is not particularly user-friendly. The interface looks like it belongs to an earlier generation of iPhone apps; Elaine Velie of Hyperallergic likens it to “a computer science student’s last-minute submission for a project designed to test their ability to sort.”
Velie also criticizes the taxonomy of the site, writing, “For some reason, an entire category is dedicated to the database’s two stolen wine coolers, and eight works did not make it into any category at all.”
Others say that despite its flaws, the app is still a constructive development. While admitting that the user interface still needs work, Richard Whiddington of Artnet calls the mobile launch a “positive step in expanding access to the FBI’s database of stolen work.”
The FBI’s new app drew comparisons to its European counterpart: In 2021, Interpol launched the ID-Art app, which allows the public to access its Stolen Works of Art database. This sleeker app includes more detailed descriptions of over 52,000 art pieces. It also allows users to conduct reverse-image searches, which is a crucial feature for those who wish to check on pieces they don’t know the names of.
“In recent years we’ve witnessed the unprecedented ransack by terrorists of the cultural heritage of countries arising from armed conflict, organized looting and cultural cleansing,” said Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock in a statement at the time.
The first smartphone app of this nature is even older: The art crimes team of Italy's Carabinieri introduced its iTPC app (an acronym for “Protection of Cultural Heritage” in Italian) in 2014. While it debuted during a time of smaller screens and lower-quality graphics, it served the same purpose as the more recent efforts.
“It represents a first for those who hope to contribute to the fight against heritage crimes,” Mariano Mossa, then the head of the Italian heritage police, said at the app’s launch, per Agence France-Presse.
According to Artnet, the FBI’s new app comes during a time of growth for the agency’s art crime program, which now includes two dozen agents working across the United States.