This document is not exhaustive. It does not aim at listing all databases of stolen artefacts available to European police officers, but it does include the most important and best-known ones. Only recorded (paintings, sculpture, religious objects, etc.) and documented objects can be included in these databases.
Of course, objects resulting from looting, which are plainly called “orphan objects”, do not find their place in these databases because, taken out of their context, they are not recorded and are only very rarely reported.
I would like to warmly thank the police colleagues who have kindly contributed to the drafting of this report.
INTERPOL’s Works of Art database: PSYCHE
The Stolen Works of Art database is our main tool to tackle the traffic in cultural property. Our database of stolen works of art combines description and pictures of more than 51,000 items from 134 countries. It is the only database at the international level with certified police information on stolen and missing objects of art. In accordance with a memorandum of understanding signed between INTERPOL and other entities, other organizations such as UNESCO, ICOM and ICCROM are also authorized to insert information into the database.
The Stolen Works of Art Database was established in 1995 as the first INTERPOL database, alongside the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. These two tools are closely linked, since the Convention defines as due diligence in Article 4 the action of consulting an accessible register of stolen works of art before acquiring a cultural good. The consultation of INTERPOL’s stolen works of art, mentioned in the Convention, must therefore be considered as a fundamental step before buying a work of art. In order to enable anyone to fulfil their due diligence obligations, since 2009, anyone can apply to become an authorized user of the database, to check in real-time if an item is among the registered objects, using our Application form.
Several international actors, such as the United Nations Security Council in its resolution 2347/2017, its monitoring team and other organizations, including UNESCO, have repeatedly stressed the key role of the database. In the above-mentioned resolution, the UN Security Council called upon all its member countries to use and contribute to the INTERPOL database. Furthermore, in 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 73/130 on the return or restitution of cultural property to the source countries. In Article 17, the UN requests the creation, with the support of INTERPOL, of specialized police units exclusively dedicated to these crimes and to the investigation of cases of trafficking in cultural property. In addition, the General Assembly re-emphasizes the importance of creating a national database of stolen works of art directly connected to that of INTERPOL – as a fundamental step to share and record as much information as possible on stolen objects. Some of the benefits of a specialized unit at the national level include:
- a better co-ordination at national and international levels between law enforcement agencies in identifying and sharing information on criminal networks suspected of being involved in the illicit traffic of stolen cultural goods,
- and an increased ability to determine the links between these criminal networks and to identify the movement of goods, tracking their routes and destinations, their modus operandi and other related criminal activities.
There are a number of mandatory characteristics and information that must be provided on stolen objects in order to be included in the database. Indeed, only unique and recognisable objects could be included unless they have particular characteristics that distinguish them. In addition, good quality photos are also mandatory for any object.
Furthermore, the fact that an item is not included in the database does not mean that it is not stolen. An item may have been stolen, but not included in the database for several reasons, such as: it has not yet been reported as stolen to the police; the theft report has not yet been received by INTERPOL through official channels; the item has not yet been entered into the database; searches for the item are only carried out at the national level; the item has been looted from an archaeological site and is not known to the police.
INTERPOL carried out a revolutionary upgrading process in 2018 through the PSYCHE project. The upgrade aimed at modernizing both the database interface and its data insertion process in order to increase the volume of data by allowing member countries to independently insert, modify and delete their data on stolen cultural property.
Belgian art database: ARTIST
The first digital database was purchased in 1998. It was an adapted copy for Belgium of the French database TREIMA. In 2006, the development of ARTIST II began. The federal police developed this system. The first structure has been preserved, as well as the parametric search function.
However, thanks to the experience gained, Lucas Verhaegen, head of the art unit, added various functionalities such as the registration of objects without images, the creation of reports, statistics, etc.
An important application is the insertion of the complete identity of persons by category (victim, witness, suspect, perpetrator). This required the approval of the Commission for the Protection of Privacy. This functionality is very useful for the restitution of goods stolen decades ago. It is also possible to cross-reference with other police databases, and thus establish a link between art theft and perpetrators of terrorism or extremism that may incite terrorism.
As this is a police development, ARTIST can operate on the police database platform, which enables a direct link with other databases and the automatic entry of information into ARTIST (interconnection).
It also has the advantage of having lower development costs and of not having to pay for a licence or annual maintenance (however, this can also be a disadvantage if there is a bug because a budget must be foreseen within the police). In 2009 it became operational.
However, in 2018, following software obsolescence, it was decided to develop ARTIST III. This new version will become a web application which will again be integrated into a police application that will make possible the automatic exchange of information between local units and central services. At the end of 2019, ARTIST contained around 26,000 stolen Belgian objects.
Functional analysis in the field of IT (information technology) is expected to start this autumn.
Austrian art database:
This database was created in 1991. At that time, a unit dedicated to the fight against crimes against cultural property was established. Today it is called “Cultural Property Unit” at the Austrian Criminal Intelligence Service (Bundeskriminalamt).
As of 15 October 2020, the database contains 41,115 objects, including all kinds of works of art and “unlabelled objects”, such as jewellery.
The objects are registered with a description and photographs. When an object can be identified without a photograph, it is also included. But it is rare. The criteria for registration in the database are the possibility of a clear identification of the object; without value threshold. The object categories follow the Interpol works of art database and have been adapted to national needs. A police report is required to enter files into the database.
The local unit must report thefts of works of art to the Cultural Property Unit. All kinds of art crimes are registered (theft, robbery, embezzlement, fraud (forgery), etc.). The data are registered at the centre by a member of the Cultural Property Unit of the Austrian Criminal Intelligence Service (Bundeskriminalamt). The database can be used by specialised police officers throughout Austria.
Public research is done on the website: www.bundeskriminalamt.at
A transmission of all relevant files is made to Interpol (with the exception of objects of low value and/or of purely national interest such as a crucifix stolen in the countryside).
Spanish art database: DULCINEA
The Spanish National Police has a database of stolen works of art called DULCINEA. It is designed to collect data on criminal offences, which fall within the competence of the Historical Heritage Brigade, in order to facilitate its investigation.
Created by ministerial order of 20 June 2002 of the Ministry of the Interior, it regulates the computer files of the general police directorate containing personal data.
To access the “DULCINEA” database, access rights are required via the username and password fields and there are two levels:
- Management level of the officials of the Historical Heritage Brigade, constituted only at the central level.
- General consultation level of the Provincial Delegates of Historical Heritage, at the territorial level.
In DULCINEA, it is planned to collect data relating to the identity of persons (including physical marks), nationality, vehicles, modus operandi and data relating to criminal and administrative offences related to historical heritage.
The data will come from public administrations, private entities, actors of the case themselves as well as from other sources. Its structure is similar to the Interpol PSYCHE database.
Currently, the DULCINEA database contains more than 12,000 works of art with their corresponding descriptions based on international standardised parameters.
The Dutch database:
The Dutch database contains about 5,000 stolen works of art. Only 1,750 works stolen in the Netherlands are included in the Interpol PSYCHE database. The difference is due to the quality of the information received which does not make it possible to transfer to PSYCHE, mainly due to the poor quality of the images.
This database serves as an information tool where all criminal information on works of art and offenders as well as images and measurements of works of art are included. Searching for a stolen work of art thus requires a lot of work.
The Dutch police are now working to extract the images, the name of the artist and the measurements from the system and put them in a single PDF file. With this file they will be able to search more easily, for example in auction house catalogues, whether stolen objects are being offered for sale.
In the future, the specialised Dutch police want auction houses and art dealers to do this search themselves, which is already compulsory for almost all second-hand shops. If they want to buy a second-hand mobile phone, for example, they must search for the serial number of the phone and when the phone is stolen, the second-hand buyer will immediately receive a notification via the site.
The Dutch police therefore has a good second-hand goods control system, only the art world needs to be pushed to join this system because the art market players are not very willing to cooperate with this system.
German art database: NNSACH-Kunst
This NNSACH-Kunst database is intended for stolen, fake and dubious works of art.
The following are authorised to consult it: trainees of the German police only, of the BKA and investigators assigned to one of the 16 federal offices for criminal investigations of the concerned Bundesland.
To date, this database contains:
- 7,764 related cases with 23,775 photos of original paintings or other two-dimensional pictorial works.
- 2,396 cases are registered with 15,686 dubious or fake works of art.
- 8,427 cases are registered with 19,625 original works of art such as sculptures, furniture, archaeological objects, books, and
- 680 cases are registered with 1,320 dubious or fake works of art such as sculptures, furniture, archaeological objects, books, etc.
A total of 20,468 cases with 60,408 objects dating back to World War II.
Lostart database of the Magdeburg LostArt Foundation – www.lostart.de: This database records the losses resulting from persecution under the Nazi dictatorship and WWII, especially those suffered by Jewish owners, as well as the losses of German museums during this period.
Interpol PSYCHE: The German police make extensive use of the INTERPOL works of art database to register and search for stolen works of art.
Italian art database
Since the 1980s, the Carabinieri of the Heritage Authority, a specialised unit, have been using an auxiliary instrument in their investigations: the “Database of Stolen Works of Art”, provided for by article 85 of Legislative Decree no. 42 of 22 January 2004 (Code of Cultural and Natural Heritage), which contains information on the objects to be recovered, of Italian or foreign provenance, and on related criminal events.
The use of sophisticated computer technology has made the database a point of reference for all headquarters and for other Italian and foreign law enforcement agencies, allowing for an in-depth analysis of the criminal phenomenon concerning the illicit trafficking of cultural property. The database includes the description of more than 1,280,000 described stolen objects, with more than 780,000 images. It is a powerful computer tool that allows the recovery of stolen objects thanks to the combination of the efficiency of its image search algorithm and the experience of the operators of the central unit of the Carabinieri of the Heritage Authority.
rench art database: TREIMA
This database was created in 1995 by a police officer from the Central Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Goods (OCBC). It was modernised in 2005 with the addition of a search engine by visual similarity. To date it contains about 110,000 photos related to 32,000 cases.
The database only includes works of art that have been reported as stolen. There is no value threshold.
The inclusion of a stolen art object in the Treima database is done by means of an “object” sheet which describes it and a “case” sheet which relates the circumstances of its disappearance and the unit in charge of the investigation.
The most “beautiful” objects with a quality photo are registered in the Interpol PSYCHE database.
TREIMA is not open to the public. It is completed by three investigation services: the OCBC, the STRC (the national gendarmerie’s criminal intelligence processing service) and by the unit specialised in the fight against the theft of works of art of the Paris Police Prefecture. Its consultation by the Ministry of Culture is authorised.
A project to modernise the Treima database so that other functionalities are accessible is currently being developed.
What will be the future? Soon tools will be available to all investigators, including artificial intelligence, which will not only enable them to identify stolen or missing objects, but also to compare images with objects identified on the ICOM red lists, or put up for sale in current and past sales catalogues. It will be possible to work on the typology of objects which will enable investigators to determine the provenance of an orphan object. This tool is currently being developed in the European PREVISION project.