The importance of documentation for combatting the illicit trade in cultural objects has long been recognized. Objects that have not been photographed and adequately described are rarely recoverable by law-enforcement officials. At the international level, Interpol provides the links among law-enforcement agencies, circulating descriptions of objects reported as stolen, or found in suspicious circumstances. (Poster no. 25(b), December 1995, reproduced by courtesy of Interpol Secrétariat général, Lyon.)

The law-enforcement community regards the illicit trade in cultural objects as a major category of international crime, one which has become "more violent, less scrupulous, better organized and more closely tied to organized crime."1 The proceeds of thefts, forgery, ransoms, and smuggling operations involving cultural objects are often used to fund other criminal activities, the objects themselves serving as both a medium of exchange between criminals and a means of "laundering" the profits of crime.2

National law-enforcement agencies have responded by setting up specialist art squads. At the international level, the formal link between these agencies is provided by Interpol, which was established in 1923 to promote and organize collaboration among all affiliated states. Interpol is, in effect, a clearing house for information through reciprocal links between member countries. It can circulate information only about cultural property that has been reported to member police forces as stolen, or as property found in suspicious circumstances.3 Between 1966 and 1994 Interpol has circulated notices reporting the theft of 19,708 objects.4

The fight against the illicit trade in cultural objects has depended increasingly on international collaboration, since criminals, unlike law-enforcement agencies, are not constrained by national borders. Moreover, there is a growing recognition that law-enforcement agencies will need to work more closely not only with each other, but also with other organizations in both the public and private sectors if they are to shrink the marketplace for stolen art and make its criminal operation more difficult. In the words of Charles Hill (formerly of the Metropolitan Police, U.K.),

Greater success in preventing thefts will be achievable through a coherent crime reduction and prevention strategy which integrates policing efforts with the initiatives of public institutions. Good ideas from members of the public. . .[are] also needed. In the art market itself, among dealers, auction houses, serious collectors and institutions, an increased diligence regarding crime is overdue.5

Law-enforcement agencies have long recognized the importance of documentation for preventing the illicit trade in cultural objects. Documentation is indeed crucial to the protection of cultural property, for law-enforcement officials can rarely recover and return objects that have not been photographed and adequately described. It is for this reason that Interpol will publish notices only on objects that have been documented to a level that makes them clearly identifiable. The need for this information is illustrated by the following example:

During the course of an investigation of trafficking channels, it is not uncommon to discover a whole stock of objects of art and antiques of all sorts in the hands of an international fence. In these cases the difficulties are enormous when an attempt is made to trace the objects which have been found back to the different victimized owners, to prove that these objects were in fact stolen, and to be able in the end to restore them to their legitimate owner.6

Law-enforcement agencies have custody of large numbers of objects that have been recovered in the course of operations, but that cannot be returned to their rightful owners because there is no documentation that makes it possible to identify the victims.

Law-enforcement agencies have custody of large numbers of objects which have been recovered in the course of operations, but which cannot be returned to their rightful owners because there is no documentation that enables the victims to be identified. The objects pictured here were recovered by the Metropolitan Police (U.K.) and put on public display in an attempt to identify their owners (photograph copyright Metropolitan Police).

The unfortunate fact is that few, perhaps less than 5 percent, of the cultural objects stolen every year have been photographed and adequately described.7 Thieves are aware of this, and rely "on being able to sell lesser pieces easily, simply because no one other than the owner would recognize them."8 The absence of descriptions and of effective means of circulating information thus plays into the hands of the thief. One of the ways art theft can be made a higher-risk, and therefore less popular, type of crime is by encouraging both institutions and the public to document their objects. The existence of more and better documentation will not only assist crime detection and the recovery of stolen objects, but will also have considerable value as a crime prevention strategy.

These descriptions must contain the information that enables objects to be identified and recovered. The majority of police officers are not "art trained," and therefore "rely very heavily on accurate descriptions, and particularly on distinguishing features, to be able to identify property which may be stolen."9 For the same reason, photographs play a crucial role in the process of uniquely identifying cultural objects. Several agencies have run crime prevention campaigns aimed at encouraging the public to make records—primarily photographic—of valuable property. One such campaign claimed that "taking a photograph of your valuables won't stop a burglar, but it could greatly assist the police in catching him, and anyone who has handled stolen goods."10

It is one thing to have descriptions of stolen objects, but quite another to be able to use this information effectively. To this end, a number of law-enforcement agencies have developed computerized databases of stolen cultural objects. At the international level, Interpol has created an art theft database at its headquarters in Lyon, France. Additionally, systems exist in Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These agencies agree, in considerable measure, on the categories of information they believe to be important for identifying stolen objects (see Table 5). According to this project's survey, these categories of information are currently recorded on the large majority of art theft databases operated by law-enforcement agencies.

A number of law-enforcement agencies have developed computerized databases of stolen cultural objects. The majority of these hold images of the objects recorded (photograph copyright Stuart J.A. Laidlaw, University College London).

For a number of years there have been discussions about the development of an international network of existing art theft databases. In 1990, delegates to the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (Havana) resolved to address the problem of the illicit trade in cultural objects by developing an automated international network to exchange information on crimes against cultural property. A year later the subject was also discussed at an International Workshop on the Protection of Artistic and Cultural Patrimony in Courmayeur, Italy. The workshop, organized in cooperation with the UNESCO Division of Cultural Heritage and the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Branch of the United Nations (UNOV), presented further evidence of the magnitude of the international threats to cultural objects. Recommendation v of the resulting Charter of Courmayeur stated that:

The United Nations and UNESCO, in close collaboration with ICOM and other interested non-governmental organizations, should encourage close co-operation between emerging initiatives in the private and public sector that are developing data bases about stolen cultural property. The feasibility of establishing a network of these data bases should be carefully explored.11

Many of the technical and non-technical issues involved in establishing such a network are currently being addressed by the GRASP project (Global Retrieval, Access and Information System for Property Items). The project, which is partly funded by the European Union, is developing

a telematic system which enables data, including images, about property items to be entered into local databases. This, in conjunction with the networking features, will allow users to search automatically and intelligently across different databases between lost, stolen and recovered objects.12

In November 1996, representatives of law-enforcement agencies with computerized art theft databases, Interpol, the Council of Europe, ICOM, the GRASP project, and the two principal private-sector systems (Art Loss Register and Trace/Thesaurus) met in Prague to consider various scenarios for linking existing systems. The meeting—organized by UNESCO, the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, and the Getty Information Institute—heard a progress report on the development of Object ID, and discussed technical proposals on aspects of the exchange of information among databases.

Law-enforcement agencies are now looking to the public information network—the Internet—as a means of distributing information about stolen art and antiques. The Internet is already part of the public face of a number of law-enforcement agencies. Interpol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Interpol-U.S. National Central Bureau, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the Metropolitan Police (U.K.) are among those agencies that have home pages on the World Wide Web. The RCMP now places information about stolen cultural objects on the Internet, reasoning that

the use of the Internet for non-confidential information allows us to reach a large group of potentially helpful informers at minimal cost. . . .The benefits of large scale distributions of art theft notices outweighs in our opinion any potential risks.13

Looking to the future, the continuing need to increase both the quantity and quality of descriptions of stolen objects available to law-enforcement agencies is generally accepted. Equally recognized is the need to compile this information, and to disseminate it in forms that enable its effective use for crime detection and the recovery and return of stolen objects. These are the combined elements that constitute proactive, intelligence-led strategies for combatting the illicit trade in cultural objects.


1 Professor Norman Palmer quoted in The Sunday Independent, November 3, 1996.

2 See C. Hill, "Money Laundering Methodology," Journal of International Banking and Financial Law,
Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 1995), 163-164; and C. Hill, "Recovering Stolen Art: Practical Recovery Issues and the Role of Law Enforcement Agencies," Art, Antiquity and Law, Vol. 1, Issue 3 (August 1996), 283-292. Also published in C. Hill, "Money Laundering Methodology," in R. Parlour, ed., Butterworth's Guide to International Money Laundering, Law and Practice (London: Butterworth, 1995), 1-13. See also Art Newspaper, January 1997.

3 For information about stolen cultural objects Interpol uses a standard form called the CRIGEN/Art Form. The first purpose of the form is to constitute a request for the issue of an international notice for stolen or recovered works of art. The second purpose of the form is to be the basic document used for entering information onto Interpol's ASF (Automated Search Facility) system.

4 Theft of Cultural Property in Canada (Ottawa: Interpol Ottawa, 1995), 10.

5 C. Hill, 1996, 287.

6 M. Ballestrazzi, "Protecting the National Heritage—The Role of the Police with Regard to Insurance Companies," Etudes et dossiers No. 172 (Geneva: Geneva Association, 1992), 43.

7 Trace, February 1996, 5.

8 A Picture Can Paint a Thousand Words, produced for the Metropolitan Police by Hiscox Underwriting, London, n.d.

9 R. Ellis, Art and Antiques Focus Group, Metropolitan Police (U.K.).

10 Metropolitan Police campaign: "Photograph Your Valuables," which was emulated in the Czech Republic in a campaign organized jointly by the Ministry of Culture and Czech Criminal Police, with sponsorship from Kodak.

11 Charter of Courmayeur, Recommendation v.

12 The GRASP project came about as a result of a proposal to the Commission for the European Community's 4th Framework RTD Programme. It is receiving partial funding from the Telematics for Administrations sector of that programme (DG XIII). To find out more about GRASP, visit the project's Web site at http://www.arttic.com/GRASP.

13 L. Schur, Cultural Property Expert/Analyst, Interpol Ottawa.


Protecting Cultural Objects in the Global Information Society — Copyright © 1997 The J. Paul Getty Trust