By Claire Darrow.

In a continued effort to combat art crime and the illicit traffic of cultural heritage, in 2021, the International Criminal Police Organization (“INTERPOL”) has launched a new app that aims to make fighting trafficking as easy as scrolling on Instagram. Art crime and antiquities trafficking are not blameless offences, often involving many actors and disrupting the art trade in a variety of ways more frequently than most might anticipate. In May 2021, Kim Kardashian found herself in the middle of a trafficked antiquity scandal after the U.S. government determined she had acquired a statue that was illegally smuggled and exported from Italy. To confront the ever evolving and ever surprising world of art crime and antiquities trafficking, INTERPOL, the world’s largest police organization, is continuing to evolve and surprise as well. Through the novel ID-Art App, INTERPOL seeks to increase the general public’s accessibility to their database, encourage due diligence among law enforcement and art collectors alike, and raise international awareness for this largely unrecognized reality. With early successes in both Italy and the Netherlands, the ID-Art App may prove itself to be an invaluable tool in locating stolen objects, increasing accessibility, and fighting transnational criminal activity more broadly.[1]

The Global Scope

In 2020, UNESCO estimated that the illicit trade in cultural goods was worth approximately 10 billion dollars, though it is hard to assign precise numbers to an illicit underground market.[2] Due to the often highly lucrative nature of this illicit trade, the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (“UNTOC”) explains “there is evidence that leads us to establish the link between trafficking in cultural property and other types of transnational organized crime such as the drug trade, arms smuggling, violence, corruption and money laundering.”[3] Especially in conflict zones, looting of archaeological sites “is highly organized and constitutes a major source of financing for criminal and terrorist organizations.”[4] However, this activity is not unique to those zones nor is it localized in one country or region. Antiquities trafficking is international in scope and thus demands a global response. Corrado Catesi, INTERPOL’s Works of Art Unit coordinator, illustrates the international dimensions of illicit trafficking saying: cultural theft “is not a ‘knife crime.’ It involves larger criminal organizations and affects all countries worldwide.”[5]

Conventions/Legal Dimensions

Since its founding in 1945, UNESCO has held three major conventions to address this international problem. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention 1954, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and the 1995 International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (“UNIDROIT”) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objectscomprise a global framework of reference. UNESCO considers these three conventions as pioneering instruments in the fight against cultural heritage crimes. Consisting of a patchwork of recommendations, these binding and enforceable legal instruments hold signatory members to uniform standards when it comes to combating attacks on cultural heritage.[6]

Although these conventions do raise awareness and present a call to action to the member countries of UNESCO, national laws and local approaches often complicate the unified goals outlined in conventions and treaties. The UNESCO Toolkit: Fighting the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property (“the UNESCO Toolkit”) acknowledges that “the diversity of national legislations leads to loopholes and complexities in the implementation of international conventions…This situation may create problems if mutual legal assistance is required; meanwhile, the traffickers benefit from such discrepancies to continue their illegal business.”[7] In Egypt, for example, “private ownership (of antiquities) is not permitted and the law imposes sanctions of imprisonment with hard labour for the possession or trade in such antiquities”; while in Greece, “persons who export or attempt to export cultural property in violation of the law may be sentenced to imprisonment of up to ten years.”[8] Even when UNESCO member countries sign such conventions, their own national laws can further obfuscate the already complicated matter of hunting down stolen artifacts and prosecuting the people that are connected to the crime. 

The Role of Databases

The UNESCO Toolkit further highlights that different combinations of international conventions and national laws can yield varying results, emphasizing the need for a holistic response based on all relevant tools in addition to a clear legal framework. International databases are just one of those vital tools that can complement the multiple levels of laws and ensure a comprehensive approach to illegal actions. The International Foundation for Art Research (“IFAR”)’s Art Law and Cultural Property Database, The Art Loss Register (“ALR”), and INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art Database represent a small sampling of the many types of databases that serve as crucial resources used at multiple levels of the trade.[9]

To understand INTERPOL’s ID-Art’s place among databases like IFAR’s Art Law and Cultural Property Database and the ALR, it is helpful to take a brief look into the models and targeted goals of each. IFAR’s Art Law and Cultural Property Database sprouted from their “Stolen Art Alert” newsletter that began in the mid-1970’s in response to an increased awareness and prevalence of thefts and lootings.[10] This was the first publicly available international archive of stolen art and served as a model for databases that sprung up in the 1990’s as public and private organizations started to digitize their own archives. The ALR was originally part of IFAR as a commercial enterprise to expand and market the database and took over IFAR’s database in 1997. Today, the IFAR database is a non-profit that requires users to register and either pay a yearly subscription fee or pay for 2- or 4-hour session fees to access their educational database. Not only for museum-professionals, the database is targeted towards lay people, collectors, scholars, artists, and art lawyers. In addition to ownership records and stolen items archives, the database has an extensive legal section with case laws and a legal glossary with images of artworks involved in past and current disputes.

The ALR, on the other hand, has been a commercial enterprise from its inception and thus targets a different audience of collectors, insurers, and law enforcement more interested in collections management and risk assessment. The ALR prides itself on its extensive records and claims to hold “the world’s largest private database of lost, stolen and looted art, antiques and collectibles, currently listing more than 700,000 items.”[11] As a private database, the ability to access this exclusive collection — to either search potential purchases, register new objects, or report missing ones — comes at a steep price. Loss registrations, for example, are charged on a basis of £15, €17.50 or US$20 per item (plus VAT where applicable).[12] While fees such as this may not prove to be a large burden for some, it does ultimately reduce accessibility and discourage people from taking action to register or report stolen works.

ID-Art App

This is where INTERPOL’s ID-Art App comes into play. As an intergovernmental organization that addresses transnational crimes, INTERPOL has real incentive to make its public database free and accessible to users across the globe, in contrast to private databases like ALR and ArtClaim Register (“ArtClaim”) (est. 2015). The goal of accessibility is apparent from the moment a user downloads the ID-Art App. The app is free on the App Store or Google Play Store and does not require additional fees to search the database or record an entry. Its simple, user-friendly interface and multiple operating languages of Arabic, English, French, and Spanish cement the ID-Art app as a helpful tool that can reach a large audience. The 3 main tabs on the app’s homepage convey the goals of the app: database search, inventory creation, and site reporting. These combined features could fill in the knowledge gaps left by a patchwork of conventions and a mosaic of public and private databases. In terms of breadth, accuracy, and accessibility, the ID-Art App may change the ways stolen art is documented and vulnerable sites are recorded by encouraging people to conduct due diligence before and after an object is reported as missing.

While access to INTERPOL’s database has historically been limited to law enforcement agencies and authorized private users, the general public has been able to access limited amounts of data about recently reported and recovered works since 2009. On the app, users now have unrestricted access to INTERPOL’s 52,000-work database that includes everything from looted antiquities to artworks like Jan Vermeer’s The Concert (1660) stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.[13] Like IFAR’s Art Law and Cultural Property Database, the ID-Art App has the potential to appeal to a large audience of museum professionals, collectors, scholars, and art-sleuthing amateurs.

For those that fall into any of those categories, using the app to search the database or record an object is straight-forward. To search Jan Vermeer’s The Concert (1660), users first select their country and language and continue to a home screen containing four tabs: Stolen Items, Search, My Inventory, and Settings. On the Stolen Items tab, users can browse the stolen art reported to INTERPOL in the country where they are located or can jump over to the Search tab and manually enter criteria such as object type, medium, and artist. If users miraculously come across The Concert in some forgotten basement or hanging above a mantel somewhere, they could also use the Visual Search feature in the Search tab to take a picture of the artwork and find a match in INTERPOL’s database. If a user wanted to report the work at this stage, they would have to register with the app and provide personal information to confirm their identity and legitimize the report.

Conclusion

As the underground business of art looting and antiquities trafficking continues to rely more heavily on social media and smartphones, INTERPOL is once again adapting to changes in criminal activity and developments of technology.[14] By making this database completely free and accessible to the general public, ID-Art App goes beyond what any government-sponsored database, privately-funded database, or any other subsidiary resources has ever done before in terms of accessibility and transparency. Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Culture, praised the app’s innovation: “INTERPOL’s ID-Art App is a milestone in the international fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property,” “Indeed it is both preventive and reactive as it allows everyone to record cultural objects and sites into the app. This has the potential to improve due diligence practices with potential buyers of cultural artefacts.”[15] Beyond improving due diligence, the app has the potential to reach audiences across the world that may not know about this problem or feel that they, as individuals, have little to contribute to this fight. The looting of art and destruction of cultural property may feel like issues that are beyond an individual’s control, but the ID-Art App shows that individuals are key players in the reporting and prevention of these crimes, while demonstrating that it can even happen in the palm of a hand.


Endnotes:

[1] INTERPOL Launches App to Better Protect Cultural Heritage, INTERPOL (May 6, 2021), https://www.INTERPOL.int/en/News-and-Events/News/2021/INTERPOL-launches-app-to-better-protect-cultural-heritage.

[2] The Real Price of Art: International UNESCO Campaign Reveals the Hidden Face of Art Trafficking, UNESCO (Oct. 20, 2020), https://en.unesco.org/news/real-price-art-international-unesco-campaign-reveals-hidden-face-art-trafficking.

[3] Fighting the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property: A Toolkit for European Judiciary and Law Enforcement, UNESCO (2018), http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/movable/pdf/Toolkit.pdf.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Corrado Catesi, Due diligence in the art market | INTERPOL’s new app to trace and identify stolen cultural property, INTERPOL (2021)

[6] Fighting the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property: A Toolkit for European Judiciary and Law Enforcement, UNESCO (2018), http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/movable/pdf/Toolkit.pdf.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mia Tomijima, Competing or Complementing? Art Law Databases Proliferate, Center for Art Law (Apr. 23, 2015), https://itsartlaw.org/2015/04/23/competing-or-complementing-art-loss-databases-proliferate/.

[10] International Foundation for Art Research, https://www.ifar.org/about.php.

[11] Art Loss Register, https://www.artloss.com/register/#:~:text=Any%20uniquely%20identifiable%20item%20can,case%20of%20a%20large%20theft (2021).

[12] International Foundation for Art Research, https://www.ifar.org/about.php.

[13] Nora McGreevy, INTERPOL’s New App Combats Art Crime and Protects Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Magazine (May 12, 2021), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/INTERPOL-launches-app-help-people-report-stolen-art-180977700/.

[14] Lucy Siegel, Social Media: A Smuggler’s Tool For Looted Antiquities, Center for Art Law (Jun. 16, 2020), https://itsartlaw.org/2020/06/16/social-media-a-smugglers-tool-for-looted-antiquities/.

[15] David Klein, INTERPOL Launches App to Combat Looted Art Trade, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (May 8, 2021), https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/14358-INTERPOL-launches-app-to-help-combat-looted-art-trade.

About the Author: Claire Darrow is a Summer 2021 Intern at the Center for Art Law. She is a rising senior at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont where she is studying art history and romance languages.