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The app that turns you into an art crime sleuth

The world’s biggest law enforcement agency wants the public’s help in identifying and preventing the sale of illicitly trafficked cultural goods.

Interpol's ID-Art app enables mobile access to its stolen art database and permits users to create art collection inventories and document at-risk cultural sites.INTERPOL

Private art crime sleuths the world over have just been given a new tool to help identify and stop the sale of stolen art and looted antiquities: a smartphone app that gives them instant, real-time access to Interpol’s international database of stolen art.

The spoils of tomb raiders, home invaders, museum burglars, and cultural heritage site ransackers fuel a murky and illicit art and antiquities trade that nets close to $10 billion a year, according to UNESCO. This month alone, Interpol announced the seizure of 56,400 stolen works and the arrest of 67 people in a multiagency, 31-country, five-month sting operation code-named Pandora V. Now by offering the ID-Art app to the public, Interpol seeks to further disrupt such shadowy networks.


The scrupulous antiquities enthusiast at an international auction might wonder, for example, about the provenance of a beguiling little 2nd-century marble bust of a helmeted Athena. A quick search on the ID-Art app will reveal that the statue was stolen from Italy.

The database also includes more immediately recognizable pieces, such as 17th-century Dutch master Frans Hals’s “Two Laughing Boys,” stolen for the third time in 35 years last August and worth an estimated $18 million, and Vincent Van Gogh’s “Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring,” valued at nearly $6 million and stolen in March 2020 on the 167th anniversary of the painter’s birth. The paintings were taken in overnight raids on separate Dutch art museums that were closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

ID-Art app users can either enter search criteria such as object type, medium, material, description, and shape or upload a photo for the app’s image recognition software to identify stolen cultural property and artwork in seconds.

With bureaus in 94 countries, Interpol is the world’s largest law enforcement agency. Its stolen art database, however, with 52,000 registered pieces, is dwarfed by Italian law enforcement’s national registry of more than 1.3 million stolen items. The for-profit, UK-based Art Loss Register’s privately maintained database lists 700,000 stolen pieces. But what makes the Interpol database a step forward in fighting art crime is that it is searchable by anyone with a smartphone, for free.


The app has already helped. Earlier this year, the Italian Carabinieri’s Unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage identified and halted the sale of two stolen statues. And in the Netherlands, the Dutch Art Crime Unit identified two stolen paintings being offered for sale by an Amsterdam auction house.

Reached by telephone in Rome, Stefano Alessandrini, a former consultant for the Italian Ministry of Culture and a forensic archaeologist with the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art, praised the app’s functionality. “I have it. I use it,” Alessandrini said.

In a career that began 40 years ago as a volunteer protecting the oft-looted Etruscan necropolises at Cerveteri, northwest of Rome, Alessandrini has long relied on a photographic memory to identify stolen items. “I am always checking everything — auction houses, antiquities dealers, all the catalogs in the world — for paintings and archaeological objects. I do this every day, also in the night!” said Alessandrini.

Now, ID-Art abets Alessandrini’s cause. “I wanted to check to see if there were things stolen recently,” he said. “I found gold coins right away. It was very good.”


The creators of ID-Art also intend for the app to protect cultural goods before they’re stolen, whether at heritage sites vulnerable to illegal excavations or in private collections that could fall prey to thieves. Archaeologists on the front lines of protecting heritage sites can create “site cards” that record geographic location and contain a detailed description and photos of the condition of a site, as well as images. Collectors can upload images to inventory their holdings. Such records can help investigators assess damage at heritage sites and recover stolen pieces more quickly.

ID-Art is available in Interpol’s official languages — Arabic, English, French, and Spanish — and is available for free download for Android and iPhone.

Kelly Horan is the deputy editor of Ideas. She can be reached at kelly.horan@globe.com.