by Ted Smalley Bowen

Databases: IT Aids Search for Looted Art

Aug 01, 20034 mins
Data Management

Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad was state-of-the-art when it opened in 1967. Scholars of Mesopotamia, such as John Russell, considered the facility well-run. Despite the first Gulf War and United Nations sanctions, the museum had passable lab equipment and a partially computerized records system. That was before the looting this spring.

When Russell, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art, returned to the Baghdad museum in late May as part of a U.N. fact-finding mission, he saw the challenges in assessing the damage. “The computers and cameras were stolen. The offices were cleaned out,” he says. Museum staff and students were “working on the floor, doing a manual inventory” of the remaining collection with pen and paper.

The looting of Iraq’s museums and archaeological sites has raised the profile of stolen art trafficking. The worldwide market for stolen art runs as high as $7 billion a year, including $5 billion in antiquities, according to international agencies.

Digital tools are playing an increasing role in combating the trade, but they are no silver bullet. Databases of stolen art and antiquities are relatively small, and there’s no unified view. It takes time, money and logistical support to set up a technical response to plunder on the scale carried out in Iraq. Nonetheless, IT figures prominently in efforts to size up and address the damage to the country’s cultural heritage—which includes its development of agriculture and the written word. Topping the list: U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and Interpol, the international police organization, are collaborating on image databases that will archive the losses, starting with the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad.

“Stolen items move on the market to potential buyers via images on the Internet,” says Russell. “The same techniques might [make] images of questionable pieces available to specialists who might be able to identify them as [either] stolen or legitimate.”

Entries in the Unesco database will be transferred via Web forms into Interpol’s main image database of stolen art and antiquities. Universities and museums are also compiling image banks and lists of stolen items.

Interpol’s database of stolen art has about 20,000 images. Existing databases include national records, such as the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, and commercial databases, such as the Art Loss Register and the Trace Stolen Alert Network, which serve private collectors, museums, auction houses and law enforcement.

Lyons, France-based Interpol is putting much of its modest $7.5 million annual IT budget into upgrading its X.400 network to an IP virtual private network linking its 181 member states, says Peter Nevitt, the director of information systems. Interpol is also replacing its text-based e-mail search interface with an image-matching system. “A lot of police lack the language to describe a genuine work of art,” Nevitt explains.

Although image databases and VPNs give investigators—and auction houses, dealers and museums—more information, items still must be reported stolen, ownership established, cross-border cooperation authorized and investigations carried out. Digital photography helps in identifying objects, but expert confirmation is typically required, and such extra-agency coordination takes time.

Documented items from museum and private collections are easier to recover, experts say, and the IT tools can help. Undocumented items like those looted from archaeological sites (and most antiquities), are harder to recoup under U.S. and international law because ownership can be hard to establish without a legitimate paper trail.

Interpol aims to create what Nevitt terms a “Yahoo of the law enforcement world,” linking individual national crime databases to Interpol’s, and providing investigators with a specialized, secure meta search service analogous to Web search engines.

Will the database effort amount to anything? It’s impossible to predict, but recent investigations aided by the London-based Art Loss Register have led to the recovery of works by Cezanne (Pewter Pitcher and Fruit) in 1999 and Keith Haring (Little Bad Wolf) in 2001.