New INTERPOL App Puts A Due Diligence Tool In the Hands of Art Buyers
05/18/2021Last week, the International Criminal Police Organization (better known as INTERPOL), an international organization that facilitates cooperation by law enforcement organizations around the globe, announced a new project that may be of interest to art collectors, dealers, and anyone involved in high-end art transactions. INTERPOL has released a mobile application that allows a user to, among other things, quickly and conveniently determine whether a work of art appears in INTERPOL’s database of stolen artworks. The app, called ID-Art, is free and available in several languages, and on Android or iOS mobile devices.
Searching a Database of Stolen Art
One of the primary functions of the app is to provide users with instant access to INTERPOL’s database of more than 50,000 artworks that have been reported as stolen from all over the world. Users can search using key terms about an artwork, or they can upload a photo of the artwork they are investigating, and the app will use image-recognition technology to compare the photographed work to those in the database.
Although the database itself is not new, the app represents a convenient due diligence tool for prospective buyers of art, and may prove particularly useful in situations like an art fair, where a potential buyer might need to move quickly to get information about an artwork in order to make a purchasing decision. The image-recognition technology is also noteworthy because it has the potential to flag stolen artworks that might not turn up in text searches (it is not uncommon for artworks to be known by more than one title, or for unscrupulous actors to market a stolen artwork under a different title). In fact, INTERPOL has reported that a pilot phase of the app has already identified four stolen artworks.
Collection Management Features
The app also has other features that may be of interest to art-market participants. The app gives users the option to create an inventory of artworks in their collection; they can input information about their own property into the app, which then aids them in organizing the information into a standardized format. Besides helping with general recordkeeping, this function may be useful in the event of a theft, enabling a collector to quickly provide authorities with a thorough report about what is missing. This app feature might be of particular interest to smaller or non-institutional collections that may not be willing or able to invest in museum-grade collection management software or professional inventorying.
Cultural Property Protection Features
The app also empowers a user to send a report to INTERPOL about cultural sites potentially at risk of looting or destruction. As the Smithsonian Magazine reports, users can upload photos of and information about threatened heritage sites (for example, a historical building in a war zone). The resulting timestamped “site card” provides digital evidence regarding at-risk sites that can inform future investigators if the site is damaged or looted. In an era when many people have cell phones with cameras, this function is in some ways an attempt to harness the power of crowdsourcing to try to prevent or mitigate damage to cultural heritage sites—a phenomenon that has, sadly, become all too common in places suffering from civil unrest or other crises.
A Potentially Helpful—But Not Comprehensive—Diligence Tool
This app has the potential to put a useful diligence tool in the hands of collectors and other art-market participants, making it quick and easy to check an artwork against an important global database. Potential buyers can spot what might turn out to be a glaring red flag regarding an artwork they are considering for purchase; indeed, as this type of search becomes easier, it will be increasingly unacceptable for a buyer to plead ignorance of a work’s problematic provenance in the event of a later dispute.
More generally speaking, widespread adoption of tools like this also might help empower art-market participants to be more proactive in how they think about art and cultural artifacts. The database search function may serve to normalize the basic idea of due diligence in art deals, ensuring that more collectors view diligence as an indispensable and routine part of the buying process, and giving them a tool that can help make it as straightforward as possible. Likewise, the app’s inventory function can help even a less-experienced collector engage in basic record-keeping. And the app’s cultural property protection aspect allows any user to play a role in safeguarding heritage sites. Overall, the app may also simply increase awareness among the art community regarding the global problems posed by stolen and looted art.
Of course, there are caveats here. Users should understand that searching the INTERPOL stolen art database is a necessary, but probably not sufficient diligence step for most art deals. First, as INTERPOL itself warns, this search is not a definitive answer to whether a work is stolen; there are all kinds of reasons why a stolen work might not be in this database. Second, this app only touches on one aspect of diligence (a potential title problem due to theft). It will not shed light on other possible risks in an art transaction, which might range from condition problems (which might require consultation with a professional conservator) to whether there are any liens on the artwork (a flag that might turn up only in the course of a UCC search, which can reveal that the work has been pledged as collateral for a loan). In short, users should be aware that a thorough due diligence process for an art deal will likely require additional information beyond what is available through this app.
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