The last thing flamboyant Bond villains and shadowy Mr Bigs want to worry about when buying a new piece of art is finding out where it came from. But for consumers who want to be as discerning in their ethics as in their taste, ensuring that their coveted artwork has not been stolen can be tricky.
Now, for the first time, anyone looking to establish the origins of an artwork or simply peruse the vast catalogue of the world’s stolen treasures can do so for free at the click of a mouse. Interpol, the global policing body, has unveiled an online database of about 34,000 items known to have gone missing, and it hopes its existence will prove a “crucial step” in the fight against the flourishing illegal trade.
“Accessibility to stolen art information is a vital contribution to creating public awareness on the protection of cultural property,” said Karl Heinz Kind, the coordinator of the organization’s Works of Art department. “The inclusion of a stolen cultural property item into Interpol’s stolen works of art database ... therefore represents an important barrier to the illicit trafficking of a stolen cultural object by making its sale more difficult.”
Launched last month and open to interested individuals, as well as governments, museums, galleries and auction houses, the database features masterpieces by artists such as Caravaggio, Titian and Degas, as well as a host of other, lesser known paintings, sculptures, pieces of furniture and jewelry. Among the items featured is Rembrandt’s The Storm of the Sea of Galilee, taken along with other paintings from a US gallery in a 1990 heist considered the biggest in world history.
“These are items stolen from all over the world — from Bhutan and Mongolia to the US, Australia and Europe,” said an Interpol specialist who did not want his name to be published.
“Having such an accessible record of what’s missing is very important because, that way, if you find yourself being offered a Renoir for a fraction of the price, you’ll be able to check what you’re buying,” he said.
With the recent boom in the art market, the illicit trafficking of precious works has flourished and police are searching for better ways to crack down on the key perpetrators. But in certain countries it remains a fiendishly efficient black market, the Interpol source said.
“Belgium is like a turntable: stolen goods disappear immediately,” the source said.
But, while experts have welcomed the online database as a big improvement on the previous system, some are pushing for even more drastic measures to be put in place. Arguing that persuading people to come forward with items they know to be stolen is no easy feat, they say incentives should be offered.