Interpol’s New App Combats Art Crime and Protects Cultural Heritage

Amateur sleuths, collectors and dealers can use ID-Art to access the international organization’s database of 52,000 stolen artworks

A dark image of two people's hands; one person holds a work of art in a gilt frame, while the other holds a phone with the Interpol app opened
The newly released ID-Art app allows the public to easily identify and report stolen art. Interpol

Interpol, the world’s largest police organization, lists more than 52,000 works in its database of stolen art. This official catalogue runs the gamut from looted antiquities to the subjects of well-known heists, such as Vincent van Gogh’s The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884), which was stolen from a Netherlands museum during Covid-19 lockdown, and the 13 works lifted from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the biggest art theft in modern history.

Last week, the global crime-fighting group debuted a new app that aims to make the process of identifying and reporting stolen works as simple as swiping on a smartphone. After downloading the free app—called ID-Art—users can upload images or input keywords to search for information about specific missing objects, reports Valentina Di Liscia for Hyperallergic. Pop-ups will prompt users who come across valuable information to report their findings directly to the police.

In an Interpol statement, officials note that the app marks the organization’s latest effort to provide the public with the tools necessary to combat art and artifact trafficking. For example, collectors and art owners can use ID-Art’s reverse-image search feature to check whether an item they purchased is of dubious provenance.

As Carlie Porterfield notes for Forbes, Unesco estimated last year that the market for trafficked cultural heritage items is worth almost $10 billion annually, though it’s difficult to assign precise numbers to the illicit underground market. Criminal and militant groups often fund their activities through illegal antiquities trading, as David Klein writes for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Lax provenance laws mean that some illegally acquired artworks surface on the floors of major auction houses and in the collections of famous museums.

“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,” says Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock in the statement. “This new tool is a significant step forward in enhancing the ability of police officers, cultural heritage professionals and the general public to protect our common heritage.”

A screenshot of one of the stolen works in Interpol's database: The Concert by Jan Vermeer, which was taken during the infamous 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner heist Interpol / ID-Art App
A screenshot of the ID-Art entry for Spring Garden by Vincent van Gogh (1884), which was stolen from an Amsterdam museum in March 2020, when the museum closed to the public due to Covid-19 Interpol / ID-Art App

By making its stolen artwork database fully accessible and searchable, Interpol hopes to make it easier for people who handle, sell or buy art to certify that their actions are legal, per Forbes. The app is available in Arabic, English, French and Spanish.

In the statement, Interpol points out that the app’s pilot phase already garnered some success: Italian police used it to successfully identify two stolen statues earlier this year; in the Netherlands, the Dutch Art Crime Unit located and recovered two stolen paintings after checking an online sales catalogue published by an Amsterdam auction house.

Per the statement, ID-Art also provides tools for people on the front lines of cultural heritage preservation. Users can take and upload photos of threatened heritage sites—for instance, a church in an active war zone—and create a “site card” with a timestamp, a geographic location and a detailed description of the scene. These crowdsourced images and information can provide a bank of digital evidence if the site is looted or destroyed.

As Di Liscia notes for Hyperallergic, Interpol’s database of stolen art only captures a narrow slice of the large, nebulous category of “stolen” artwork.

“After a quick test run,” she writes, “… I can confirm the app has a major blind spot: [I]t does not seem to list the thousands of artworks looted by Western colonial powers that currently reside in major museums.” (For instance, the Benin Bronzes—a quintessential example of the havoc wreaked by British colonialism on Nigerian cultural heritage—are not listed in the “stolen” inventory, despite being looted in a well-documented 1897 attack.)

Di Liscia adds, “I guess the definition of ‘stolen’ is subjective.”

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