Competing or Complementing: Art Loss Databases Proliferate

By Mia Tomijima*

Stolen art seems to be ubiquitous and difficult to track. It is relatively easy to ship and sell around the world, and can remain easily hidden for decades. The owner faces the conflict of wanting to publicize the loss widely, while also keeping their personal lives private. The development of databases to record losses was first preceded by newsletter alerts of stolen art that proliferated in the arts community to halt sales with questionable provenance. Next, the emergence of the Internet caused law enforcement agencies, international organizations, and private companies to establish online databases of stolen art. The increased organization and transparency created by these databases helps collectors and art professionals with due diligence searches for acquisitions, loans, and insurance, which ultimately helps ward off costly title disputes. However, a database is only as useful as the breadth, accuracy, and accessibility of information it contains. New technology and the market’s demand for other potential uses of art registries, such as for collection management, could push these databases to new, uncharted territories. The usual suspects for searches include: the Art Loss Registry, the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, and Interpol’s Database, among a few others. One new company that is pushing the boundaries is the ArtClaim Database.

On March 5, 2015, the ArtClaim Database (“ArtClaim”) had its U.S. launch party at the Hirschl & Adler Gallery in New York City. Members of the art, auction, insurance and legal communities arrived if not to learn about the new company than to support its founders on the new venture. After more than one year of strategizing, ArtClaim, owned and operated by the Art Recovery Group LTD, launched their new database in January 2015. Christopher A. Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery Group, along with several former employees of the Art Loss Register (“ALR”) established a competing company that could expand the concept of these databases to new areas beyond just thefts. According to Ariane Moser, Client Relations Director of Art Recovery Group, ArtClaim holds itself as the first private database created as an “all claims and all interests” database. This means that in addition to stolen art, the database contains information regarding art encumbered by financial liens, insurance claims, museum objects on loan, possible fakes and forgeries, and collections management, among other claims. The ArtClaim Database may also be used to register work directly from artists, which would help them to, for example, keep track of consignments with galleries or resale royalties. The ArtClaim Database joins a limited group of databases that record art ownership. The two best-known government-sponsored databases are aimed at assisting law enforcement to recover art or cultural artifacts that have been involved in thefts or looting are the one maintained by Interpol and the one maintained by the FBI. Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization, first started maintaining a database of stolen art from police reports in 1947. The database is accessible by law enforcement agencies, authorized private users, and, since 2009, the general public can access limited amounts of data, including the most recently reported works, recovered works, and recovered works that remain unclaimed. The FBI maintains a similar database of stolen art and cultural property, called the National Stolen Art File (“NSAF”). Entries into the NSAF are submitted by law enforcement in the U.S. and abroad, and the general public can access limited parts of the database, but not information related to ongoing investigations. Unlike other databases, the NSAF has some qualifications for entry, including that the object must be “uniquely identifiable and have historical or artistic significance,” must be worth at least $2,000 (or less if associated with a major crime), and the request for entry must come through law enforcement. Thus, the database is limited to only those reported to them, and excludes art that is not necessarily associated with crimes. Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who manages the FBI’s art theft program, said to the NY Times that “It is not an absolutely complete database […] We get what they choose to send us.” When a work of art is recovered, it is removed from the database. Interpol’s and the FBI’s databases are unquestionably useful, but are limited by the finite resources of time and funding that often plagues government-run agencies.

To supplement and/or overcome the limitations of government funding, privately run databases have emerged as useful alternatives. Dominating this sphere is the Art Loss Register, the oldest and most-prominently established private art database. Started in 1976 by the non-profit IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research) as a “Stolen Art Alert” to deter international art theft and sales, the ALR formed a partnership with the organization and moved its headquarters to London in 1990. According to Julian Radcliffe, Chairman of the ALR, the database sets itself apart from others in the field via its exclusive collection of 25 years of data on art that is stolen, missing, lost, fake or forged. It offers registrations for art subsequent to loss or theft (at a cost of £15/ US$25 per item for 1-5 items; for 6 – 10 items: £12.50/ US$20 per; or for 11+ items: £10/ US$18 item). Reportedly, the ALR database currently holds about 435,000 objects. There is no public access to the data held and a single search may be performed at a cost of $95 or £60. Radcliffe notes that the company performs over 400,000 paid searches every year from auction houses, galleries, and other vetting organizations.

Incidentally, the Art Loss Register is developing new subsections for its database, including for the jewelry and watch trade, to add even more volume to their database. The company has conducted trials with emerging technology such as image recognition, but found it to be no more effective than the manual searches conducted by their trained art historians. Radcliffe states that image recognition, as it currently stands, may not catch the details of art being slightly altered and resold by thieves, or three-dimensional objects like the decorative arts. The ALR is a “managed database” with every search subject to an internal audit trail to avoid criminals from using their system to avoid being caught. ALR will issue due diligence certificates, which do not make guarantees of authenticity, but may provide some greater certainty as to a possible dispute over the artwork. While understandably protecting itself from liability as well as the private information of the art elite, the lack of transparency into the search process and what information is used and how that information is accessed and organized can raise some questions as the actual effectiveness of a due diligence search using ALR’s services. The company has received criticism over questionably ethical tactics used in demanding fees for leads, potential lack of cooperation with the authorities, and not to mention the fact that the company is partly owned by the auction houses that make primary use of its services. The company, unchallenged, remained persistent in its methods and was able to do so as the only private player to offer such level of services, at least until now.

As compared to these databases, ArtClaim is attempting to set itself apart by working with new forms of technology. Moser notes that the database was built completely from scratch with the most technologically advanced tools available in mind, using a modular system that is already fully developed but expandable for data processing that will continue to develop into the future. The database uses integrated high-definition image recognition software from a company called LTU Technologies, and has an intuitive user interface with over 500 different searchable data fields. The information contained within these searchable data fields are not accessible by the general public; since security and confidentiality is of an utmost importance, only internal employees can perform searches (just like ALR). Thus, while presumably using the latest technology will increase speed, efficiency, and accuracy of individual searches, it may be difficult to tell whether these uses of technology are actually more effective than previous methods.

What is the cost of ArtClaim’s services? Records of stolen or looted art are free to register on the ArtClaim Database. Registration of art for other claims, such as for lien recordings or collections management, is not free; the price tag is negotiable depending upon the total number of registrations and status of the requester (non-profit museum, auction house, or otherwise). A search of the database for due diligence purposes is permitted, however as noted earlier, users are expected to submit a search request to the company, whose staff performs the search. The ARTCLAIM issues a certificate if it finds that there is no disputed claim to the art as of the date of issue of the certificate. A single search costs £60 plus VAT (or US dollar equivalent), with multiple searches costing less per depending on the number and status of the requester. According to Moser, the ArtClaim Database has several hundred thousand records that are currently being digitized onto the system.

After registration within ArtClaim, a person can pursue recovery independently, or use the dispute resolution and recovery services offered by separate division Art Recovery International (“ARI”) for a fee. ARI is already working with law enforcement agencies around the world to investigate and recover works of art: it helped recover a Matisse painting taken from the Rosenberg Family during the Nazi occupation of France; identified several paintings including works by Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera stolen from a home in Encino, California; and recently recovered sculptures by Paul Manship and Paolo Troubetzkoy for the Hirschl & Adler Gallery from whom they were stolen over 32 years ago.

Finally, ArtClaim and other databases may overlap with databases that focus on art reportedly looted by the Nazis during World War II. For example, the Lost Art Database is run by the Koordierungsstelle Magdeburg, Germany’s central office for documenting lost cultural property, which was established to register cultural objects that were relocated, moved or seized as a result of Nazi dictatorship and persecution. Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume is a database of searchable illustrations compiled by the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) of more than 20,000 art objects taken from Jews in German-occupied France and Belgium. The general public can search this database by individual objects or by the owners from whom the object was taken. Another useful resource, the Central Registry of Information of Looted Cultural Property 1933-1945 is set up as a central repository of information on Nazi looting, including not only information on stolen objects, but also pending legal cases, laws, and reports on the fates of families. Working with the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the database contains 25,000 artworks from over 12 countries, and is fully searchable by artist, owner, or provenance. The specificity in time and ownership from Nazi-looted art claims has lent itself well to the creation and maintenance of art loss databases, which will hopefully aid in due diligence searches and the recovery of art to their rightful owners or heirs.

In light of the fact that title disputes are expensive, time consuming, and oftentimes fraught with emotion, making sure that the art one is acquiring is not stolen is sound business advice as well as an ethical act. As with any piece of property, there is a great need to perform thorough due diligence prior to the purchase to check that the provenance is as claimed to be, and to protect stolen art from resale. Information about artworks that were stolen, lost, or looted is perennially valuable and should be widely accessible, however there are many barriers to the accessibility of this information, chief among them being cost and privacy. The availability of multiple databases with different tools, services, and information may create confusion for collectors and the art industry as to which database to use for their individual purposes and how to feasibly conduct a proper due diligence search. Greater competition in a marketplace generally drives the industry forward, with participants offering competitively priced services and greater innovation in order to stay relevant with their customers. The launch of the ArtClaim Database and formation of the Art Recovery Group are ambitious and risky, as well as promising, and time will tell whether they are what the art market needs.

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*About the Author: Mia Tomijima is a recent graduate of Brooklyn Law School, where she received a certificate in intellectual property and served as Chair of the Art Law Association. She received a bachelor’s degree in art history from UCLA, and has worked with museums, auction houses, and law firms on both coasts. Mia is a post-graduate fellow with Center for Art Law. 

The author would like to thank Ariane Moser and Julian Radcliffe for their time and input in this article.

Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice. Any opinions contained herein are of the author’s alone and are not an endorsement for a particular service.

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