By Sarah Jackson

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The stealing of art in bulk is a crime for which history provides numerous examples, the most notorious being Napoleon's collection of loot during his campaigns or Hitler's systematic acquisition of "Aryan" artworks for his showpiece museum at Linz. But the motivation for these confirmations of the old adage "to the victor go the spoils" differs markedly from the impetus behind today's eruption of art theft—namely, filthy lucre.

It is commonly accepted by all concerned with stemming the trade in stolen art that the rise in art theft over the last 10 years mirrors the tremendous rise in art-market prices, particularly in the area of Impressionist paintings. While banking authorities are ever more vigilant in tracing the movement of funds and cash, the art thief can move art and antiques with relative ease across international borders. Those involved in terrorism and drug-related crimes now use art as a currency, replacing diamonds and bullion. It came as no surprise to learn that one of the underworld characters behind the great 1986 theft of paintings from the Irish home of Sir Alfred Beit wanted to set himself up as a major cocaine importer into the British Isles, and that one of the subsequent handlers of the paintings was a member of an outlawed paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. Art theft is regarded as the third-most-lucrative international crime, after drugs and arms running.

An International Database

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Until the formation of an international database of stolen works of art, statistics on art theft were hard to come by. This was due in part to the lack of priority given to art theft by law enforcement agencies, whose budgets are necessarily directed first toward other higher-priority crimes such as terrorism, murder, and fraud, and also due to the dearth of insurance company records on art and antique losses. Unlike a stolen car, for which the chassis number acts as a unique identifying code, art and antiques are much harder to describe. In the past, many insurers did not single out losses of art and antiques on insurance schedules or specifically identify claims they paid as the result of theft; this practice rendered available figures on art theft unreliable.

Losses have often not been reported because descriptions of the objects were inadequate, and photographs were not available. In the absence of a photograph, how does one describe a stolen piece of art? The Getty Information Institute spent five years answering this question and in 1997 launched Object ID in Amsterdam. Object ID has transformed the protection and detection of cultural objects by providing an internationally accepted minimum standard for the identification of art and antiques.


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Prior to the formation of the Art Loss Register, there was no internationally recognized computerized database of stolen works of art accessible to the general public, although police agencies in certain countries (in particular, the United States, Canada, France, and Italy) had compiled, as had Interpol, databases of cultural thefts, mainly from within their own borders. Art theft, however, is an international crime, demanding an international response based on an information network that transcends national boundaries. With this fact in mind, the Register was established in 1990 by organizations in the art trade, Sotheby's and Christie's among them, and by insurance companies, including Lloyds of London and Nordstern.

The aims of the company are threefold: deter theft, recover stolen art, and reduce the trade in stolen art. Since its formation, 100,000 items have been recorded on the database, most logged with digital images; 30,000 of these listings were acquired from the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) in New York, which also became a shareholder. Approximately one thousand new items are added monthly. Reports are received from insurance companies; loss adjusters and appraisers; police agencies, including Interpol; and museums, galleries, and private individuals. The Art Loss Register records only stolen items, items missing as a result of armed conflict, and items thought to have been destroyed but for which there remains some question regarding their status. No criminal data are held on the database; instead, it includes only descriptions of the objects, information about the owners; insurance details; and police crime reference numbers assigned by investigating officers. The Register maintains offices in London, New York, Düsseldorf, and Perth, Australia. An office will open in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1998 under the auspices of the St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation, of which the Getty Conservation Institute is a founding partner (See Partners in St. Petersburg).

Type of Art Theft

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Theft involving artworks can be divided into five main categories. It is the headline-grabbing category of ransom that fuels the curiosity of the public and the pens of newspaper editors and crime writers. Edvard Munch's The Scream, stolen during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, falls into this category. Valued at between $40 and $50 million, The Scream was stolen by a gang of drug dealers and other criminals. While the robbery is well known, what is less well known is that the ransom demand made to the Norwegian government was just $22,000.

A second category involves stolen art sold very quickly for a fraction of its value. In this instance, the police often apprehend the thief or handler when an attempt is made to sell the item on the market.

Another category involves stolen art that is warehoused. This practice applies in particular to spectacular pieces of art that are impossible to sell on the open market and are stored away until the statute of limitations has expired; such statutes vary from country to country and, in the United States, from state to state. For example, in the case of the Old Master paintings, including Rembrandt's only known seascape, stolen in the notorious 1990 heist at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the federal statute of limitations has run out, and the state statute of limitations on the theft itself will end soon.

Less common is the category of theft for personal enjoyment. This, for instance, was the reason used by the defendant charged with stealing Caspar David Friedrich's 1815 painting Harbour, stolen in Potsdam in 1996.

Last, there is theft for the purpose of making a personal or ideological statement. Examples here are legion—from the disgruntled Englishman who stole Goya's Portrait of Wellington from the Dulwich picture gallery in the early 1960s, in protest against having to pay his television license fee, to the stealing of symbols of cultural identity by both sides in the Balkan conflict, to the theft (and in some cases destruction or forced sale) of "degenerate" art during the Second World War.

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Checking with an internationally recognized database such as the Art Loss Register is now considered due diligence by a prospective purchaser or lender. Some major museums in the United States routinely check acquisitions against the Register to determine title. Forty-six percent of recoveries stem from this checking process, while 40 percent occur through the systematic screening of auction house catalogues worldwide. Both routine and catalogue screening recoveries highlight the international character of art theft. In December 1993, a small painting by Flemish artist Petrus Christus of Christ as the Man of Sorrows was stolen from Birmingham City Art Gallery. Because it was snatched off the wall during daylight hours, most presumed that the theft was the work of an opportunistic thief. The painting was recovered four months later in Switzerland by police officers alerted by the Art Loss Register; the Register had checked the artwork's origins for an inquiring dealer. Later it became clear that money from the sale of the painting (worth about $440,000) had been intended to finance drug deals in South America.

In another example, a fine view of Constantinople by Russian artist Constantin Aivazowsky was identified in 1996 at a London salesroom, where it had been entered for sale by a dealer. The painting had been bought at auction in Helsinki after having been stolen in 1992 from the Sochi Museum in the Russian city of Sochi on the Black Sea. Similarly, a Renoir floral study of anemonies, stolen in London in 1993, was spotted in a catalogue for a small auction house in Belgium. Recently, a valuable silver coffeepot made by renowned Huguenot silversmith Paul de Lamerie turned up in New York six years after its theft in Yorkshire, England. Time is proving no barrier to recovery. In September 1997, for instance, a Florida-based dealer prudently checked a still life of peaches by Edouard Manet against the database to discover that it had been stolen in New York City 20 years earlier.

The banking community is a recent convert to the use of art databases in the fight against art crime. Great care may be taken by a bank before it issues a mortgage on a property, but until now, banks and other financial institutions have paid scant attention to the numerous artworks used as collateral for loans. Before a loan is issued, a quick check against the Art Loss Register's database can significantly reduce the chance of money being lent against an object for which the borrower may not be the true owner. Once the loan is made, the lender may report the artwork—now collateral—to the Art Loss Register's Collateral File. If the borrower has meanwhile kept possession of the artwork and tries to dispose of it on the art market, registration on the Collateral File will alert the lender to any unauthorized attempt at sale. The Art Loss Register has a list of one thousand paintings, with a total value of $1.4 billion, held as collateral against bad debts; current jitters in the Far East financial markets are likely to lead additional financial institutions to request provenance clearance as they begin to sell some of their art holdings.

There would seem to be no limit to human ingenuity when it comes to the theft of cultural objects. Joe Keenan, the former New York City detective who became well known for his investigations into art theft, has said "art galleries often have more money hanging on their walls than a bank has in its cash drawers. Even department stores frequently have better security measures for controlling people trying on new clothes than galleries do [for their artworks]."

Whatever the motivation behind the theft of art—be it for ransom or for the purchase of arms or simply for instant cash—all art thefts have one thing in common: greed. But greed can be fought. By pooling information, tightening up and unifying legislation, insisting on due diligence, and improving awareness about item identification, all those concerned with protecting cultural heritage have a greater chance of success than has the thief.

Sarah Jackson is senior art historian with the Art Loss Register in London.

Object ID

The Getty Information Institute and its project partners—UNESCO, the United States Information Agency, the International Council of Museums, the Council of Europe, and the Getty Conservation Institute—have developed a new standard for the identification of works of art and artifacts. Called Object ID, the standard is intended to allow essential data about stolen art to be transmitted quickly among collectors, cultural institutions, law enforcement and insurance agencies, customs bureaus, and art dealers. Previously, no standardized agreement on documenting cultural objects for the purpose of identification existed.

Based on consultations and worldwide surveys of more that one thousand organizations in 84 countries, Object ID specifies 10 categories of information, including documentation of the artwork by photograph or drawing. Other categories include type of object, materials and techniques, measurements, and distinguishing features.

To help curators and collectors put the new standard into practice, the Getty Information Institute has released an eight-minute video and a one-page guide ("Object ID Checklist"). The checklist provides step-by-step documentation instructions. The Information Institute has also published Protecting Cultural Objects in the Global Information Society, a report that describes Object ID as well as other efforts to halt the illicit trade in cultural artifacts. Along with the GCI, it is copublishing an additional resource, a guide to photographing cultural objects.

For free copies of the video, checklist, or report, write:

The Getty Information Institute
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90049 USA
or e-mail:


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Photographs are of vital importance in identifying and recovering stolen objects. In addition to overall views, take close-ups of inscriptions, markings, and any damage or repairs. If possible, include a scale or object of known size in the image.


Type of Object
What kind of object is it (e.g., painting, sculpture, clock, mask)?

Materials & Techniques
What materials is the object made of (e.g., brass, wood, oil on canvas)? How was it made (e.g., carved, cast, etched)?

What is the size and/or weight of the object? Specify which unit of measurement is being used (e.g., cm., in.) and to which dimension n the measurement refers (e.g., height, width, depth).

Inscriptions & Markings
Are there any identifying markings, numbers, or inscriptions on the object (e.g., a signature, dedication, title, maker's marks, purity marks, property marks)?

Distinguishing Features
Does the object have any physical characteristics that could help to identify it (e.g., damage, repairs, or manufacturing defects)?

Does the object have a title by which it is known and might be identified (e.g., The Scream)?

What is pictured or represented (e.g., landscape, battle, woman holding child)?

Date or Period
When was the object made (e.g., 1893, early 17th century, Late Bronze Age)?

Do you know who made the object? This may be the name of a known individual (e.g., Thomas Tompion), a company (e.g., Tiffany), or a cultural group (e.g., Hopi).


This can also include any additional information which helps to identify the object (e.g., color and shape of the object, where it was made).


Having documented the object, keep this information in a secure place.