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

Ransom or Prison


Last week a man was sentenced to five years in prison for the theft of this Benvenuto Cellini salt-cellar. The 500 year-old work may be worth as much as $50 million. Robert Mang stole the gold an enamel sculpture from Vienna’s Fine Arts Museum in 2003, easily skirting the security cameras and alarm systems.

He knew of course that there was no legitimate market for the object, so instead hid the salt-cellar under his bed and then buried it in a forest. He sent a number of ransom notes to the museum’s insurance company threatening to melt the work down if he wasn’t paid €10-million. A number of thieves attempt to ransom their ill-gotten gains back to the insurance companies or original owners, and its unclear how often a ransom is paid. In this case certainly, the owners and insurers made the rigt decision, but it must have been a difficult one in the face of the potential destruction of the work.

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

A Magritte is Recovered


Magritte’s Les Reflets du Temps has been recovered. The work had been stolen from storage in 2006. The work may be worth up to £350,000. The work was discovered by a member of the public who checked it against the London Stolen Art Database. This is welcome news, and perhaps will give pause before planned cuts the the Art and Antiques unit take place.

Det Supt Vernon Rapley, head of the unit, said: “For anyone considering buying art, antiquities or cultural property the database is an invaluable resource to help buyers check that they aren’t being sold stolen items.

“I am really pleased that the database has enabled this Magritte to be found so that the victim can have it returned to them.”

Exactly right, but the website explicitly states that it should not be used for due diligence purposes. The problem with databases, is there are too many, and they are divided regionally. Ideally there would be one overarching database any prospective buyer could check.

There is no word either on who stole the work. Unfortunately that is often the case when stolen art like this is recovered. The thieves are long gone, and the authorities main priority (and perhaps rightly so) is the recovery of the work. This also makes it appear as if there are little or no penalties to be had for stealing works though.

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

German Police Recover a Carl Spitzweg

German police have recovered a work by Carl Spitzweg worth half a million euros, or $650,000. The painting, “Friedenzseit” (“Peacetime”) was taken last March from the Kunsthalle in Mannheim during a weekend in which the museum had been opened later to allow more visitors to view the work. Security may have been less than one would expect during the theft. It highlights a continuing problem for museums though. They want to attract more visitors, but as they do, security issues become more acute.

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