The “violent crime” of a misconstrued Art Loss database

‘There’s something really beautiful about the word ‘lost’,’ Dr. Noah Charney mused in class today, ‘because it implies that an object can be found again.’[1] “Lost” is a blanket term covering artworks that have been destroyed to those that have not yet been found. (Clever forgers like Eric Hebborn actually try to produce lost artworks – the most consistent and functioning modus operandi of art criminals…but that’s a story for another day.) “Lost”s antonym, “extant”, denotes the existence of a work of art. This means that an artwork can be accounted for – even if it does not have public access. And from here we’ll Segway into the theme of today’s blog-post: the knotty world of art loss databases.

How the media shapes, or helps to reinforce, public perspective on art crime is influenced by the concept that art loss databases prompt public help in the recovery process of certain missing, looted or stolen items. Who wouldn’t want to get involved with bringing thieves to justice? But let’s first take a second to think about the clarity, obtainability and reliability of the information that is provided.  

Several national, international and transnational agencies like the London Stolen Arts Database (LSAD), INTERPOL and Lootedart.com provide online platforms that contain explicit information on current cases of missing, stolen and looted objects. Yet accessibility to this information is, in some cases, not immediately granted or attainable. For example, upon conducting a search via the Art Loss Register you will need to 1.) disclose your personal details (name, address, contact & etc.) and 2.) pay an access fee of £70.00. This takes place before you can even begin to search the database. Limited access can encourage disinterest, disinterest instils ignorance, and a combination of disinterest + ignorance = movement of Lilliputian significance in an art crime recovery process.

‘The spark of hope that one is on the trail of a lost artwork produces such a momentum that contradictory clues may be ignored and incongruous details overlooked.’[3] Here Charney explores connoisseurship as a form of art analysis, but in a similar sense art loss databases can also sometimes be [incredulously] inaccurate. Take the 2002 Van Gogh Museum theft for example – both artworks have since been recovered and yet, as ARCA CEO Lynda Albertson pointed out in her lecture on tracking stolen art, the FBI’s ‘Top Ten’ list currently advertises that one of the artworks is still “lost”.

(Please also note that crimes against art falls within the category of “Violent Crimes” on the FBI’s online archive. How is an art market professional supposed to begin a search for the Nativity with St. Lorenzo and St. Francisco by Caravaggio if the USA’s Federal Bureau of Investigation can’t differentiate between a lost painting and a machete stabbing?)

If the overall aim is to motivate due diligence and/or instigate an open line of inquiry then the limited information made available via these platforms needs to be correct. I understand that specific information, which can be used to single out an object under investigation, is removed/not included as a safety precaution but the remaining material – or ‘data designations’[4] – can’t be classified “verifiable” if there is no factual information to prove what is being published. Take the aforementioned painting the Nativity with St. Lorenzo and St. Francisco for example. This work was painted by a man born of the name Michelangelo Merisi in the town of Caravaggio [5]. Why then does the FBI’s database list the lost work as being that by the hand of Polidoro da Caravaggio, a by no means unskilled artist…but an artist who nonetheless died in 1543, 28 years prior to the correct Caravaggio being born?

What is needed is a standardised means of circulating data – and this brings us to Object ID (an international standard used for describing artistic objects in case of loss or theft). Can you imagine the same “copy-paste” version of verifiable fact being generated and disseminated across all platforms? Wouldn’t that be preferable to the vague, incorrect and misconstrued information currently on offer in some art loss databases? Object ID offers a way in which we can universally promote a positive exchange of intelligence. This can, in turn, lead to a more informed inquiry and push individual cases of art crime towards much-anticipated conclusions.

ICOM’s Object ID, conceived of the Getty Information Institute, successfully draws together the world museum community, the art and antiques trade, police and custom agencies, appraisers and the insurance industry. It defines nine categories for describing cultural and artistic artefacts in four easy steps[7].

The categories are…

  • Type of object
  • Materials and techniques
  • Measurement
  • Inscriptions and markings
  • Title
  • Subject
  • Date or period
  • Maker

And the steps…

  • Taking photographs of the object
  • Informing the above mentioned categories
  • Writing a short description including additional information
  • Keeping the constituted documentation in a secure place

It’s uncomplicated, practical…a failsafe means for connecting everyone across all platforms. Right! Now that we know how to gather information… who’s interested in clearing up the FBI’s art loss register?


[1] Charney N 2019, ‘Provenance Trap: Understanding the Modus Operandi of Art Forgers’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 25 June 2019.

[2] O’Keefe P J 2016, ‘Difficulties in Investigating Art Crime and Recovering Its Proceeds: An International Perspective’ in Chappell D, Hufnagel S (ed.), Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., England, pp. 151-167.

[3] Charney N 2015 Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers, Phaidon Press.

[4] Albertson L 2019, ‘Tracking Stolen Art: Progress, Prospects and Limitations of Databases for Stolen Art’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 03 June 2019.

[5] Harris J 2009, ‘Breaking News on the Stolen Caravaggio Nativity’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, viewed 03 June 2019, <http://art-crime.blogspot.com/2009/12/breaking-news-on-stolen-caravaggio.html>&nbsp;

[7] ICOM (unknown), Object ID, International Council of Museums, viewed 25 June 2019 from <https://icom.museum/en/activities/standards-guidelines/objectid/&gt;

The road to salvation

The XVI canto of Homer’s Iliad describes a touching episode of the Trojan War: the death of Sarpedon, son of Zeus and the king of the Lycians. This epic scene majestically drapes the surface of the infamous Euphronios krater, stolen in the 70’s from one of Cerveteri’s necropolis’ and reappearing years later on the squeaky-clean shelf of a New York museum. Here marks the moment when the vase first set foot on the road to salvation.

The story began with the illegal excavation of an Etruscan tomb in the area of ​​Greppe Sant’Angelo in the municipality of Cerveteri. When the tombaroli (tomb robbers) pulled the vase out of the ground they must have known they’d struck gold. The krater, large enough to hold seven galleons of liquid, was “thrown” by the potter Euxitheos and then decorated exquisitely by the painter Euphronios. Let me digress: Euphronios is one of two or three of the greatest masters in Greek vase painting. ‘His works are so rare that the last important piece before this one had been unearthed as long ago as 1840’[1]. Todeschini and Watson quote art historian Hovers in the following grandiloquent statement, ‘To call [the vase] an artifact is like referring to the Sistine Ceiling as a painting.’ A significant find? Uh, yes.

Having done the deed the tombaroili then got in touch with an important American merchant, the result of their exchange being 125 million lire – no questions asked[2]. The monstrous trail of ficticious provenance documentation grew tenfold as the Euphronios krater journeyed from Cerveteri to America via an extensive array of dealers and restorers to mega-rich collectors and red-handed museum officials. Here it underwent a number of unsuccessful sales before a scholar, who proposed himself as an intermediary for selling to the New York museum, generously took care of “the problem”. The vase sold for an extravagant US$1 million, the first time such a price was paid for an antiquity.[3] It was only when one of the tombaroli caught wind of the sale, realised he’d been slighted, and turned whistle-blower by allerting the appropriate authorities that the subsequent Carabinieri investigation unfolded.

If anyone is interested in this story and has not yet read the Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums, I suggest you get online and purchase a copy now. Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini have compiled a narrative that analyses the art market and its main players in all their multi-faceted, devastating glory. Each chapter reads like a journalistic article, thoroughly well researched and compelling, and together they interlock to present a tightly composed chain of events that unravel the workings of a well-oiled art crime machine. It is deliciously composed – I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in the underground antiquities market.

At this point you may be wondering how the “underground antiquities market” functions within Australia, or indeed how Australian legislation handles offences relating to art crime when compared to the Italians and their Carabinieri. Art crime covers ‘forgery and fraud, theft and extortion, money laundering, and document and identity fraud’ and yet Australia has no specialist art and cultural property investigation unit that deals with this rather expansive and complex “grey-area” in law[4]. Imagine coming across an otherwise reputable art dealer who is in the process of selling an ancient rock art tool that you know has come out of the Kimberley’s illegally. You can’t get in touch with an Australian “art fraud squad” because there isn’t one. So whom do you turn to?

To handle cases of art looting, loss and theft, Australians have to operate through one of nine different authorities, for example the Federal and State Police Services, the Interpol National Bureau, Austac & etc. These authorities are responsible for the investigation of crime, in its entirety, and thus operate with a combination of statute and common law. Traditional modes for investigation, such as interviewing the witnesses or obtaining statements, become ‘ineffective’ in cases of art crime because the investigatory trail ‘tends to lack documentary evidence, which conventional fraud inquiries rely upon’[5]. Hopefully I haven’t bored you with the details, but I believe it’s important that you know where we stand.

Figure 1: Me, photographed alongside the statue of two griffins gripping a fawn at L’Arte Di Slavare L’Arte in Rome

Let’s conclude today’s post with a round-trip back to the Euphronios krater. On Wednesday the 5th of June we took a class excursion into Rome for the L’Arte Di Salvare L’Arte exhibition at the Quirinal Palace. We were told the krater was on display here, amongst a number of other salvaged Italian heirlooms. Not quite comprehending the wonders promised, my jaw dropped rather comically upon entering the first room. We’d just walked into a trove of repatriated treasures. Stumbling past the only complete Triad Capitolina, stolen from the Tenuta dell’Inviolata in 1992; and the Il giardiniere by Vincent Van Gogh, stolen in 1998 from the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome; I came face to face with the pair of fourth century marble griffins, stolen from the tomb of Ascoli Satriano in 1976. The last time I saw this artefact was in a Polaroid photograph taken by the tombaroli, a shot that evidently showed the griffins stuffed haphazardly into the boot of a car – still encrusted with the residue of their recent earthy bed.

And, wide-eyed, we rounded the corner and arrived at the Euphronios krater standing stoically to the left in a room full of salvaged Etruscan relics.

The moment has been rather difficult to translate into words, so instead I’ll post a couple of pictures that best represent my impression of the matter. Image 1 depicts the “big fish”; the man who orchestrated the whole dirty, shameful transaction – from tombaroli to middlemen to the museum in New York – whilst all the while lounging comfortably in Corridor 17 at the Geneva Freeport. He stands triumphantly in front of an airtight American enclosure that houses the Euphronios krater in a land far, far away. The second has me standing with an even bigger grin on my face… a grin that comes from knowing full well that whatever this “big fish” instigated back in the 70s the krater eventually made its way back home, leaving behind a shattered reputation and an open, gaping hole in the criminal art market.


This article has been reposted on ARCA’s official blog. Please take a look: http://art-crime.blogspot.com/2019/06/a-look-at-art-crime-through-eyes-of.html

[1] Watson P, Todeschini C 2006, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums, Public Affairs, United States, p. ix.

[2] Ministry per i Beni e le Attività Culturali 2019, L’Arte di Salvare L’Arte. Frammenti di Storia d’Italia, museum pamphlet, Palazzo del Quirinale, Roma.

[3] Watson P, Todeschini C 2006, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums, Public Affairs, United States, p. ix.

[4] James M 2000, ‘Art Crime’ in Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, Ausrtalia, p. 1.

[5] James M 2000, ‘Art Crime’ in Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, Ausrtalia, p. 4.