‘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.’ “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.’ 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’ – 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 . 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.
The categories are…
- Type of object
- Materials and techniques
- Inscriptions and markings
- Date or period
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?
About the author: Alexandra Taylor is an assistant paintings conservator at Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation in Cambridge, United Kingdom. She is the newly elected Book Reviews Coordinator at the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC), and the Social Media and Digital Communications Officer for the Institute of Conservation (ICON) Paintings Group. Alexandra is a 2019 GAF Fellow at the International Specialised Skills Institute (ISSI) in Melbourne, Australia. Her Fellowship investigated current practice in preventing art crimes in conservation. This research was undertaken with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) in Italy.
Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.
 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.
 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.
 Charney N 2015 Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers, Phaidon Press.
 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.
 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>
 ICOM (unknown), Object ID, International Council of Museums, viewed 25 June 2019 from <https://icom.museum/en/activities/standards-guidelines/objectid/>