The Limited Effectiveness of the Art Loss Register


Georgina Adam has a very interesting article in the Art Newspaper on the dispute between Michael Marks and Aziz Kurtha over two works by Indian artist Francis Newton Souza. Pictured here is an unrelated work by Souza, Still Life, which was purchased in 1967 for a mere 50 pounds but was sold recently for 173,000 pounds. This increase in value now makes it more profitable for individual’s to bring claims for works by Souza which may have been stolen in the past.

As Adam states:

Mr Marks says he bought the two paintings, Head of a Portuguese Navigator, 1961, and Chalice with Host, 1953, in good faith in 2006. He had conducted a check against the Art Loss Register’s (ALR) stolen art database and was not alerted that there were doubts about the works’ ownership despite the fact that they had been registered with the ALR as missing.

Dr Kurtha, who owns a collection of over 200 works by Souza, said that, at some point in the 1990s, some of these were stolen…

The two paintings in the present dispute were registered by Dr Kurtha as missing with the ALR in 2005… Mr Marks, who was then unknown to the ALR, telephoned the organisation to check the provenance of the paintings and paid the ALR search fee with a credit card. Julian Radcliffe, ALR’s chairman, admitted in court that he deliberately misled Mr Marks by telling him there was no claim on the Souzas. Mr Radcliffe said that it was sometimes necessary to mislead people who make enquiries about the database in order to establish identity and bank details, which he did in this case; Dr Kurtha then took Mr Marks to court to recover the paintings.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Milton Silverman, the solicitor for Mr Marks, described this as a “potentially nightmare scenario for a dealer. He could buy works of art, certain in his own mind that they are free of any problems, only to find himself landed with a dispute on their title.” Mr Radcliffe told us that the circumstances were exceptional in that Mr Marks was unknown to them. ALR would not act in the same way with a known dealer, collector or auction house, he says.

The emphasis is mine. Marks now has a potential claim against whoever he purchased the works from in 2006, whoever that may be. One would assume such a claim would probably still leave Marks in a difficult position, as works by Souza have been increasing dramatically in value in recent years.

The priority for the ALR would seem to be to return paintings to their original owners, but not necessarily to guarantee the legitimacy of current transactions, as indicated by Radcliffe’s admission that the ALR misleads some. Add to that the fact that the ALR sometimes takes commissions for facilitating the return of works of art to original owners, and we are left with what appears to be a troubling state of affairs.

As an aside, I’m not sure what the ALR guarantees when one does ask for a search of the ALR, and I’d imagine they have done their best to disclaim liability in this situation, but I wonder if Marks may have some kind of claim against the ALR itself. Though in this case the paintings have been returned to their original owner, I wonder if perhaps this kind of misleading information would give dealers pause when they are considering whether to consult the database.

The ALR is the most widely-used and cited cultural property database, however it makes no claims to being a cure-all for the problems with the cultural property trade. Though the ALR is in some cases useful, it should not be mistaken for a check on cultural property transactions generally, and it should be pointed out that Julian Radcliffe and the ALR are quick to point out that they do not attempt to police the whole market. What they do, they do well, but there are limitations to its effectiveness. David Gill and Tom Flynn have both pointed out the dubious usefulness of the ALR with respect to recently unearthed antiquities and export restrictions. As the ALR counsel, Christopher A. Marinello has recently indicated via the Museum Security Newwork, “the database does not contain information on illegally exported artefacts unless they have been reported to us as stolen.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Difficulty of Nazi Spoliation Research

Camille Pissarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (pictured), was owned by a Jewish book publisher in 1938 in Austria. When he fled Austria, the work was lost. A history professor, Jonathan Petropoulos has been involved in attempts to return the works to the descendants.

Last week, Elise Viebeck a student reporter at Claremont McKenna College reported that Petropoulos will resign as director of the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights.

Yesterday Mike Boehm a LA Times Staff Writer picked up the story as well.

The descendant, Gisela Bermann Fischer, has accused Petropoulos of trying to extort 18% of the work’s value as payment for “facilitating” its return. It seems Petropoulos hoped to end controversy and spare the Holocaust center and Claremont McKenna College any more distraction. It seems his involvement may be more than a mere “distraction” as Swiss authorities are holding the painting as evidence in an ongoing German investigation into possible extortion by Petropoulos and a German art dealer, Peter Griebert. The LA Times Story has the details according to Petropoulos:

Petropoulos said he got involved at the behest of Fischer and the Art Loss Register, a London-based company that keeps a database of stolen art and in some cases helps to get it back.

In December 2006, he said, he met in Munich with Griebert, whom he knew as an art-business associate of Lohse. Griebert, the professor said, was now apparently angry with the ex-Nazi. Petropoulos said Griebert told him about papers he’d found showing that Lohse had sold the Pissarro in 1957 to a man who bequeathed it to a foundation in Lichtenstein.

Working for what he said was his customary consultant’s fee of $350 an hour plus expenses, Petropoulos said he reported the news to his client, the Art Loss Register, which was then negotiating a contract with Fischer to recover the painting. The professor said he did more sleuthing on his own, with a view to recovering the Pissarro and gathering material for a book.

In late January 2007, he said, he viewed, authenticated and photographed the painting in the conference room of a Zurich bank. He also said he dined with Fischer and Griebert later that day and that they reached a deal: Fischer, who’d had a falling out with the Art Loss Register, would sell the Pissarro at Christie’s in New York and Griebert would get his customary 10% art dealer’s fee.

Both Julian Radcliffe and prominent restitution attorney E. Randol Schoenberg are quoted as saying Petropolous got himself too involved in the negotiations to return the work, rather than simply do the research for the fee which had been agreed upon. The seems to have been a miscommunication at some point, and the “champagne” agreement that Petropolous thought he was entitled to rely upon was it seems not reduced to writing, and in return Petropolous refused perhaps to continue to bring the parties together.

The ultimate issue I suppose is what kind of compensation these kinds of experts can and should claim. The lawyers involved, and the Art Loss Register all take a healthy commission; and Petropolous certainly seems to have been amply compensated for his time at $350/hour. Though there may be powerful historical, legal and ethical arguments compelling the restitution of these Nazi spoliated works, we should perhaps bear in mind that it is the very large sums of money they fetch at acution which is driving these restitution efforts.

Related Posts:

Dividing a Nazi Art Dealer’s Collection

Compensation for Restitution Experts

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Compensation for Restitution Experts

Elise Viebeck, a student writer for the Claremont Independent has an outstanding article about the conflicts of interest which arise when history and art history experts are brought in to assist the heirs of victims who lost valuable art to the Nazis during World War II. She details the actions of a CMC History Professor, Jonathan Petropoulos.

The article asks an important question: How should these experts, whose specialized knowledge can bring about the restitution of ultra-valuable masterworks be compensated? Swiss prosecutor Ivo Hoppler raided a Swiss safe in the Summer of 2007 as part of a “three-nation probe of a German art dealer accused of conspiring with an American at historian to withold a painting by French impressionist”. I talked about the discovery of the work at issue, Camille Pisarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps last summer, but was unaware of this controversy.

Here’s an excerpt of Viebeck’s interesting story:

The story of the Pissarro begins with Zurich resident Gisela Fischer, 78, who is of Jewish descent. She and her family fled Vienna in 1938 two days after the Nazi Anschluss. The Gestapo looted their home, and among the stolen items was a painting by impressionist Camille Pissarro, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps.

After the war, Fischer’s father successfully located and reclaimed many of his family’s stolen assets. After her father’s death in 1995, Fischer concentrated her efforts on the Pissarro which had remained elusive. In early 2001, she registered the painting with the Art Loss Register (ALR), a London-based for-profit company involved in stolen art recovery.

The ALR began to research the painting’s provenance, or history of ownership, in the hope of ascertaining its location. There was no initial financial arrangement, as at that time the ALR did not charge for Holocaust and World War II art claims…

On January 8, 2007, at a meeting in Munich, a representative of the ALR gave Fischer a message from Petropoulos. He wrote in a letter dated December 7, 2006 that he had located the painting in Switzerland and was communicating with an unnamed contact of its owner. The owner was a “foundation created by the heirs of the person who purchased [the painting] in 1957.”

The foundation, he wrote, wished to remain anonymous.

Two days after the meeting in Munich, Radcliffe also sent Fischer a letter, this time to request a finder’s fee for the organization’s success in finding the Pissarro in Switzerland. Despite its earlier commitment not to charge Holocaust claimants, the company had changed its charging policy for Holocaust art claims, telling claimants that the company could complete restitution “at far less cost and often more efficiently” than the expensive lawyers who took some cases. The meeting with the ALR in January 2007 was the first Fischer knew of the ALR’s changed policy…

For the Pissarro case, Radcliffe proposed an elaborate compensation scheme, including 20 percent of the first $1 million, 15 percent of the second million and 10 percent of any additional value of the painting. Included in his price was a stipend for Professor Petropoulos, who had requested $100,000 from the ALR for his services.

In a letter dated January 23, Fischer’s lawyer, Dr. Norbert Kückelmann, rejected the ALR’s proposal. Three days later Petropoulos met with Fischer at the Hotel St. Gotthart in Zurich to try a new arrangement…

Radcliffe and Sarah Jackson of the Art Loss Register also went to Zurich, only to find themselves excluded from the dealings. “We went expecting to be included in the meetings with Ms. Fischer only to discover that they had already had meetings without us. We realized we had been cut out,” Radcliffe told the CI.

At the hotel, Petropoulos and Peter Griebert, a Munich art dealer, showed her digital photos of the Pissarro, claiming to have taken them that morning. According to an account published in ARTNews magazine, they did not give further details about its location or the identity of its owners at that time.

It’s a very interesting account, and I don’t think Petropoulos, nor even the Art Loss Register are painted in a favorable light based on this account. Though much nazi restitution litigation rests on the assumption that the law should compensate the victims of the holocaust and other misappropriation, the engine driving these claims are the large sums of money these works can bring at auction. I think an interesting issue which needs to be researched in more detail is how and to what extent these restitution experts owe a duty to claimants.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

A Cultural Property Registry?

On Thursday Donn Zaretsky at the always-enjoyable art law blog continued his discussion of the fake Gaugin Faun statue. Specifically, he wondered what kind of international registry might have prevented this kind of fraud, and asked me how I would envision a registry. I have a few thoughts on the subject, but they’re still in an early stage.

I had originally intended to put discussions of a potential registry and some concrete reforms of the market which are needed in the thesis. It’s not in there though because I simply ran out of space, and I’ll have to save those ideas for some future work I suppose. I don’t have a definitive answer for how an international registry might be constructed. Ideally an international body such as UNESCO would step forwards and create one, however that is far too ambitious an undertaking for that organization given its current state of funding. The industry itself could choose to regulate itself more closely, but it gains more profit by not revealing information information. In the end, the art market needs a registry like MLB, the NFL and other sports leagues need a test for Human Growth Hormone. But neither is likely to arise soon.

It’s a difficult potential issue because there a number of serious obstacles to creating a registry. The Art Loss Register and other databases exist, but they aren’t the answer to the whole problem. The current market structure earns more money without a registry. Here’s how: if I have a painting and want to sell it I can take it to an auction house. Now I’m a lowly PhD student, and that’s certainly not a lucrative career choice. If someone were to purchase the painting from me directly they would have a great deal of bargaining power if they knew my relative financial position. The painting might be worth $20,000; however the purchaser may realize my financial position and negotiate the deal lower. Auctions take place anonymously and avoid this. In many if not most transactions, we are unaware who the buyer and seller are. For the fake Faun, the consignor was Mrs. Greenhalgh using her maiden name. Had the buyer known she was living in council housing, might they have been less inclined to purchase the object, or even have more cause to doubt its authenticity? I think so certainly.

A good recent article in the Florida Law Review proposes a torrens registration scheme for works of art. Bruce W. Burton, IN SEARCH OF JOHN CONSTABLE’S THE WHITE HORSE: A CASE STUDY IN TORTURED PROVENANCE AND PROPOSAL FOR A TORRENS-LIKE SYSTEM OF TITLE REGISTRATION FOR ARTWORK, 59 Fla. L. Rev. 531 (2007). The introduction lays out the main argument:

At least forty percent of valuable artwork circulating in the marketplace is either forged or misattributed. Apart from this significant problem of art authenticity, the chains of title showing current ownership of many genuine and properly attributed objects are defective. These defects are due to incompleteness of the historical records, innocent error, lapse of time, fraudulent manipulation, or theft. This Article explores the dual complexities of properly establishing a valuable art object’s correct provenance-that is to say, determining both the authenticity as well as the chain of legal ownership of the work. This Article also examines the six principal legal doctrines that human society has designed to resolve competing ownership claims and the significant moral shortcomings of each doctrine. Most significantly, this Article presents a proposal for a much-needed reform in the law of art provenance.
The proposed reform is modeled on the Torrens land-title registration system in effect in Australia, parts of the United Kingdom, and a handful of states in the United States. The reform would offer the following: (1) a legal system for conclusively registering both the ownership and authenticity of any valuable piece of artwork; (2) fundamental fairness to all parties claiming an interest in the artwork; (3) assured financial compensation to any innocent party whose claim to the artwork has been injured or lost by operation of the Torrens-like system; (4) permanent and visible public records of art ownership; and (5) enhanced market stability because of the certitude and transparency afforded to art consumers by such a title registration system.

Burton makes a good case, but it would rely on individual states to implement the system, creating a patchwork of coverage. That would be better than nothing I suppose. In the end buyers of art, and even authenticators get excited by the prospect of rediscovering “lost” art or works which have gone missing. It can happen in legitimate ways as evidenced by the trash-rescue earlier this year. However, such a system leaves open the possibility of forgers, and also creates havoc in the antiquities trade for source nations and sites. The best advantage of a registration system would not necessarily be that it prevents these kinds of fraudulent transactions today, but that it builds up a body of knowledge about an object’s provenance so as to prevent such mistakes in the future. As it stands now, we still aren’t certain how many more forgeries by Greenhalgh may have been sold.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Shocking theft… in 1994


Is it any wonder that 7% of the Italian GDP comes from Mafia crime? The Italian city of Catania on Sicily has announced the disappearance of 51 works of art, after a 1995 document regarding their disappearance was recently “rediscovered” and provided to the carabinieri. The works were taken from the art gallery, housed in the Ursino castle pictured here, and were discovered by a new Catania councillor responsible for culture, Silvana Grasso. This is probably not the kind of news Francesco Rutelli wanted on the heels of the discovery of what may be the Lupercale, under Augustine’s palace on the Palatine Hill.

At least one step which should be taken by all museums, and even individuals who own art, is to take a photo of the works. One of the works stolen is a Rembrandt, but there’s no photograph of the work, rendering recovery nearly impossible. If there’s an image, recovery is possible. Ask Peter Crook, who recovered two works by his grandfather GF Wetherbee from the US via the Art Loss Register.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Picasso Theft from a Seattle Mall


Two etchings by Pablo Picasso were stolen from the Bellevue Square mall last week the Seattle Times reports. This is Bacchic Scene with Minotaur which was taken along with Aquatinte 26 Mai 1968. It seems a woman distracted the store clerks by asking about a work in the back of the gallery while two men casually took the etchings out of the mall. These aren’t masterworks, but their $92,000 estimated value is nothing to sniff at.

The chances these drawings will be returned quickly are probably not good. The most likely scenario is that a subsequent purchaser who didn’t know about the works’ tainted past will end up in a dispute with the gallery or the Insurance company if the gallery was able to insure the works. The Seattle piece says “unscrupulous art collectors have few qualms about purchasing stolen pieces for their private collections.” I think that may be over-stating the case a bit. In most situations the ultimate litigant is a buyer who was unaware a work had been stolen. This is why buyers should always consult organizations like the Art Loss Register before every significant purchase, and provenance should be thoroughly researched.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Comparing Digital Images to Art Theft Databases

David Nishimura at Cronaca noted a piece from Discovery News which provided more details on the cell phone technology which can take a picture of a piece of art and then compare it quickly with an art theft database. I wrote about this new development back in March. The technology allows an investigator to take a digital photo of the object with a cell phone, which is then sent to a central server. The image analysis system then compares the picture with the user’s database. It identifies similar works based on shape, outline, color, or texture, and then returns a list of the top ten closest hists.

At Present, the systems works on paintings, carpets and coins; though they hope to extend the system to work on 3-dimensional objects soon.

Nishimura seems to be a fan of the idea:

Sounds like a pretty simple and practicable idea, patching together well-established technologies. Take a database of images of stolen artworks, and search it using other images and a pattern-matching application. You’ll end up with some false positives, of course, but as long as the matching algorithm is reasonably sophisticated, you should still have a useful tool for flagging possible problem paintings for further investigation.

I think that’s right, though the problem of course is which database to check. At present there are a number of different theft databases. The largest and most successful is the Art Loss Register. However that site is not accessible to the public at large. You have to pay for and request the ALR to conduct its own search of its data. Though this technology would seem to make that process easier, Julian Radcliffe, the chairman and most vocal proponent of the ALR says “None of the imag matching is good enough to replace the art historians we use.”

That may be true, but as I’ve argued before, the first company which figures out how to make a simple, universal and easy-to-use database will really stand out, and will also really help to legitimize the art and antiquities trade generally. Until such a database exists though, we will continue to see good faith purchasers buying stolen or illicitly excavated works leading to the classic art law dispute between an original owner and a good faith purchaser. In these cases both parties are relative innocents and the law can have a difficult time evaluating the respective claims.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Dividing a Nazi Art Dealer’s Collection

Catherine Hickley wrote a very interesting article for Bloomberg on the efforts by France, Germany and Switzerland to divide Bruno Lohse’s art collection. Here is an excerpt:

Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to acquire looted art in occupied France, dispersed his private collection of Dutch 17th-century masterpieces and expressionist paintings among friends and relatives in his will, the lawyer handling his estate said.

Lohse died on March 19, aged 95, and has since become the focus of a three-nation investigation into a looted Camille Pissarro painting discovered in a Swiss bank safe that was seized by Zurich prosecutors on May 15. The painting’s prewar owners said the Gestapo stole it from their Vienna apartment in 1938. Lohse controlled the Liechtenstein trust that rented the safe.

“Paintings have been willed to relatives and friends in individual bequests,” Willy Hermann Burger, the executor of Lohse’s will, said in an interview at his home in Munich. Burger, who declined to name the beneficiaries or disclose details on individual artworks, said he’s sure none of the paintings in Lohse’s private collection are looted.

Lohse became Paris-based deputy director of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazis’ specialist art-looting unit, in 1942, according to the interrogation report compiled by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services’ Art Looting Investigation Unit, which questioned him in Austria from June 15 to Aug. 15, 1945.

The E.R.R. plundered about 22,000 items in France alone, according to the O.S.S. reports. The Jewish Claims Conference estimates that the Nazis looted about 650,000 artworks in total.

“There is a lot of art still missing and we believe that a significant proportion remains in private collections, especially in Germany and Austria,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a not-for-profit organization based in London that helps families recover plundered property.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Lohse became an art dealer in the 1950’s, and thus most of his private collection is probably legitimate. However, the Pisarro found in the Swiss bank vault, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps is probably looted, at least according to the Art Loss Register. This all underscores the importance of establishing and checking provenance for works of art when they are sold or donated. If the various European prosecutors are not as aggressive as their American counterparts have been, a lengthy and complex legal dispute between the successor and the descendants of the original1938 owner will likely ensue.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

In the News

I saw a couple of noteworthy items in the papers this morning.

First, there was an interesting note of a legal event held in London last week. Edward Fennell of the Times Online in his “In the City” feature talked about this event:

Last week Withers hosted one of the most curious legal events I have ever attended. In a gripping account to a smart multinational audience of art professionals, insurers and well-heeled collectors the firm’s art recovery expert, partner Pierre Valentin told how he helped to recover paintings from the Bakwin collection that had been stolen in America in the 1970s.

Working with the Art Loss Register (which operates in that seductive area where culture and money meet glamour and crime) Mr Valentin described a Hitchcock-like thriller featuring painstaking research, dodgy Russians and even murder – but all ending in happy success for the resolute legal sleuth. As the tale unfolded we could see on display the very “McGuffin” that had driven the drama – the collection of paintings themselves by Cézanne, Matisse, Soutine, Vlaminck By the end of an astonishing evening Withers had proved itself a true ornament to the City’s legal scene.

I take it Whithers must be a firm of Solicitors. Sounds like some fascinating stories. I do not know about this particular case, but I am familiar with Pierre Valentin. It sounds fascinating. Here is hoping he makes it up to Scotland.

Second, I noticed an AP story by Ariel David which has been picked up by a number of papers in recent weeks. I haven’t noted it before but it is an interesting story of the notorious tombaroli Pietro Casasanta who has testified at the True/Hecht trial and Rome. Here is an excerpt:

It used to be so easy for the “tombaroli,” Italy’s tomb raiders.

Pietro Casasanta had no Indiana Jones-type escapes from angry natives or booby-trapped temples. He worked undisturbed in daylight with a bulldozer, posing as a construction worker to become one of Italy’s most successful plunderers of archaeological treasures.

When he wasn’t in prison, the convicted looter operated for decades in this countryside area outside Rome, benefiting from what he says was lax surveillance that allowed him to dig into ancient Roman villas and unearth statues, pottery and other artifacts, which he then sold for millions of dollars on the illegal antiquities market.

“Nobody cared, and there was so much money going around,” he recalled. “I always worked during the day, with the same hours as construction crews, because at night it was easier to get noticed and to make mistakes.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Stolen Rockwell and Spielberg and Theft Databases


Steven Spielberg has discovered a stolen Norman Rockwell painting, Russian Schoolroom in his art collection. The work was listed on the FBI’s art crimes web site. There don’t seem to be any good images of this work on the web. This is a small thumbnail. In terms of the original theft, the FBI website states the following:

On June 25, 1973, an original Norman Rockwell painting, entitled Russian Schoolroom, was stolen during a late night burglary in Clayton, Missouri. The painting was part of a Norman Rockwell Exhibit sponsored by the Chicago office of the Circle Galleries, later known as Arts International Galleries. At the time of the theft, the Russian Schoolroom, oil on canvas, measured 16″ X 37″, and was presented in a 2′ x 4′ frame of dull gold-white molding. This painting may also be referred to as The Russian Classroom or Russian Schoolchildren.

Records for the Russian Schoolroom indicate that after the theft in 1973 and prior to 1988, the painting’s location was unknown. In October 1988 Russian Schoolroom was sold at auction in New Orleans, Louisiana. Records revealed that at that time, the painting was associated with Circle Galleries (Chicago) and the Danenburg Gallery (New York). Neither gallery exists today.

Recent information determined that the same Russian Schoolroom was allegedly advertised for sale at a Norman Rockwell Exhibit in New York, circa 1989.

In July 2004, upon receipt of the information above, the FBI’s newly formed Art Crime Team initiated an investigation to locate and recover the Russian Schoolroom.

It seems a member of Spielberg’s staff came across the site. The FBI was then notified. There is no indication that Spielberg had any knowledge of the work’s theft when he purchased it. Spielberg is a well-known collector of Rockwell. What this example does illustrate is a need for better and more comprehensive art databases. If collectors can check a work against one comprehensive database, then this kind of mistake will surely be avoided, and the incentive for stealing art will decrease dramatically.

The Art Loss Register is the most prominent of the stolen art databases. Here is a recent article on the work it does. It has been responsible for a number of high-profile recoveries. However, I am a bit skeptical because it is a closed database. It costs about $50 per search, and not everyone can search it. Julian Radcliffe, the ALR’s chairman has said in interviews in the past that the reason the database is not public is it would allow the thieves to know the status of a work they have stolen. That may be true, but I’m still a bit skeptical. If it became routine to post a picture of your painting on a free, easy-to-use website, I think the same goals would be furthered.

It seems a company may have designed a way to use simple camera phones to compare a work to a stolen art database:

Thanks to a new development from the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology IPK, the investigator can now simply take a photo of the art object with his cell phone and send it instantly to a central server. The researchers’ new image analysis system automatically compares this picture with the user’s database. The system identifies similar objects on the basis of visual features such as their shape, outline, color or texture, and returns a list of the top ten closest hits to the cell phone in a matter of seconds. If the picture is among the works in the database, the art detective can react immediately. “The system is remarkably easy to operate,” says Dr. Bertram Nickolay, head of the department for security systems. “Since it was built mostly from standard modules, it’s also a cost-effective solution.” Furthermore, the system is immune to interference factors such as a poor photograph of the work of art. Reflections caused by flash photography or by excessive brightness have no effect on the image analysis in the central server.

This could work, and it could work well. I imagine that the first company which figures out how to make a simple and easy database will earn a lot of money, and will do wonders for insuring the legitimacy of the art trade. My personal preference would be to have a free system similar to wikipedia, which allows anyone to use and access the site. Until there is a comprehensive database which ties together all of these various databases though, we will continue to see people unwittingly purchasing stolen works.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com