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Art trafficking

August 21, 2009

Art thieves and traffickers have another hurdle to cross now that international police organization Interpol has put its database of stolen artworks online, making it available to the public.

The Scream, by Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch's "The Scream" was stolen - and returnedImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

In its latest move in the fight against the trade of stolen property, Interpol has created a secure database on stolen art.

The database contains information on some 34,000 works of art stolen worldwide, and is to be updated continually. Access is granted via application.

WWII restitution an issue

Art theft is a worldwide problem; in Germany, stories of art theft often center around art that was looted from its owners amid the oppression and chaos of World War II.

During that time, "a relocation of cultural items took place whose full scope has still not been completely explored and investigated," according to the Coordination Office for Lost Cultural Assets, located in Magdeburg.

The Nazis, the Soviet Trophy Commissions, and individual Allied military personnel all perpetrated art theft. Artworks and artifacts were also removed or relocated to protect them during wartime and are now located on foreign territory.

Auctioneer's hammer
With a public database, art buyers can't claim ignoranceImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

In June, 46 countries signed the Terezin Declaration, vowing to increase their efforts to return more of the estimated 650,000 works of art stolen from European Jews during the Holocaust.

The new Interpol database could be of help in the search for these and other objects stolen in any of the agency's 187 member countries.

The information in the database will consist of descriptions and photographs of stolen cultural goods, according to Karl Hein Kind, who coordinates the Works of Art department of Interpol based in Lyon, France.

'A barrier for traffickers'

Contribution and access to the database represents "an important tool to counter the traffic in cultural property effectively," Kind said. All of Interpol's member countries will contribute information, he added.

The agency hopes that by opening up access to the database to the public and to concerned cultural and professional bodies such as ministries of culture, museums, auction houses, art galleries, foundations, and collectors, it will be that much more difficult for a seller or purchaser to claim not having had the opportunity to check whether an item was recorded as stolen.

"Extensive online access to the database (…) represents an important barrier to the illicit trafficking of a stolen cultural object by making its sale more difficult," Kind said.

Victorine Stille works for the Art Loss Register, an international company that also keeps an online database of stolen art. Their company also keeps a database of stolen goods, and takes a fee for checking on the provenance of artworks -- for buyers who want to be sure about their art investments, for example.

She agrees on the importance of transparency when it comes to stolen art, and welcomes the presence of another international art register.

"The Art Loss Register has always worked very closely with Interpol and other police agencies," Stille said. "Both of our aims is to solve art crimes... Interpol is helping to create public awareness of the problem. Its good that they've made the database available to everyone because now people can't hide anymore by saying 'Oh, we didn't know.'

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn

Editor: Kate Bowen