“Capture the Art, Capture the Criminals” or take the picture, catch the criminals. This is what you read on the home screen of ID-Art, the first app created by INTERPOL and funded by the INTERPOL Foundation for a Safer World. The project, started in 2016, was realized thanks to sophisticated image-recognition software, helpful in identifying stolen cultural assets in the INTERPOL database.
«It is unbelievable – tells us Corrado Catesi, the coordinator of the INTERPOL Unit of Art – that even before the launch, in the testing phase, ID-Art has already allowed the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage to recognise two stolen statues put up for sale on an online platform. Positive news also has reached us from the Netherlands, where the authorities in charge recovered two paintings, identified by the Dutch Art Crime Unit thanks to our App».
Making ID-Art freely downloadable means allowing everyone, without distinction, to use it and access the INTERPOL database.
We wanted to maximise access to the already public data, making them available to everyone. In this way, police, customs officers, collectors, dealers or art enthusiasts can immediately check if an object of their interest is among the 52,000 currently registered as stolen.
As far as the police forces are concerned, INTERPOL not only aims to connect them, but also provides them with useful, practical and efficient tools in achieving common goals. Like Psyche, ID-Art was designed, in general, for law enforcement, therefore for specialized units engaged in combating the illicit trafficking of cultural assets, and for those who may come into contact with an artwork illegally exported, imported or trafficked, such as the customs’ staff, customs’ agencies, and all those who need to control, for example, the illicit origin of an object. Article no. 5 of the UNIDROIT Convention, which I always like to mention, talks about due diligence: before purchasing an artwork, it’s always good to check for its lawful origin on the national registers. This article obviously speaks of national registers because in 1995, the year in which the Convention was implemented, INTERPOL database didn’t exist yet. The only dedicated databases existing at the time were Leonardo, managed by the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, and TREIMA of the Office Central de lutte contre le traffic des biens culturels (OCBC). Subsequently, since 2009, by allowing access to the first international database, INTERPOL has given the public the possibility of cross-checking the origin of artworks. But now, we wish to give everyone an extra chance, not only to the police, but also to those who go to antique markets on Sunday mornings, or to antique dealers, art galleries, or any other place where it’s possible to buy cultural assets. We would like to offer everyone the possibility of checking, on the spot, whether the object they are interested in has ever been reported by INTERPOL as stolen.
INTERPOL will track users’ activities?
No, it won’t. The only aspect that is tracked is the statistical activity. We are interested to know, for example, if one uses more a visual or a manual search for artworks, but we do not need to know anything else about who uses the app, neither the name nor the date of birth nor an email address. In brief, we do not have the user’s sensitive data. We can know if a given mobile phone has downloaded our app from the App Store or the Play Store and see which tools are the most used. We will only check if someone is using the App to inventory his/her own artworks or to report particular conditions in which cultural heritage sites are, without knowing who the users are. These data will be useful for the next versions of ID-Art, so that it will be more and more user-friendly.
When you connect to the INTERPOL database, you use the I24/7 system, of the police force, is it the same for the app?
No. This is the reason because we don’t ask any personal data. We are not interested to identify the users. We want only to increase the number of users to locate and recover the stolen objects of art.
Does the APP allow access to all information relating to stolen artworks contained in the database?
No. ID-Art provides access to the most important information to identify the stolen item. Indeed, our application was thought to give a fast and simple access to the database to all people who want to check on the go. The strict reproduction of the database in the application was not thought, because this would be not user friendly.
Does the application allow access to the INTERPOL database in real time?
Basically, yes. The cloud connection to the database is direct and constantly updated. The APP is updated every 24 hours, not only to ensure it works on all devices, but also because it refers directly to the INTERPOL database, which is also updated daily with the addition of pieces reported as stolen by the national police forces, or with the cancellation of those that have been recovered.
What can you do with ID-Art?
Using international standards known as “ID Objects“, museums and private collectors can capture images and record the features of the artworks in their possession to keep track of their collections. In case of theft, these documents can be provided to law enforcement, thus making it easier to identify and recover the items. It will also be possible to report sites potentially at risk. Those at the forefront of heritage protection will be able to document the status of heritage sites, whether they are historical, archaeological or underwater. The APP will allow users to take note of geographic location, detailed description and specific images of a site in order to record its conditions. The “site cards” can then be used as evidence or basis for the reconstruction, if the site is looted or destroyed in the future.
How is the research performed?
The search for artworks on ID-Art can be performed by using photos taken on site or by uploading images from the device. You can also enter the search criteria manually. The APP has an essential photo-tutorial, which should be viewed in advance for a successful result. In brief, it is essential to understand how to proceed. The tutorial shows how to insert photos when cataloguing the artwork. The image to be used must meet particular requirements, otherwise the search result may not be as expected; therefore, in the tutorial we recommend how to proceed providing data that can potentially be used in the future. The attention paid to photos must be the same as that used for the INTERPOL database: if a stolen art object is not documented by a quality photo, the asset may not even be included.
For these reasons, the APP not only responds to a practical need of the police forces working in the area but, thanks to the entry of new data, it also provides a solution to the lack of useful information on artworks when they are stolen.
How would this happen?
When an artwork, an archaeological item, or a rare postage stamp is stolen, the objects are almost never catalogued. ID-Art essentially allows you to create an object card compiled according to the international standard of the Object ID System. The cards entered in the INTERPOL database are also structured according to these criteria. For this reason, the photos used to create your own catalogue on ID-Art must meet particular requirements. If a photo included in the search does not meet the requirements, it will not be possible to find the item in the database. A problem of identification can also arise from the type of angle of the photo. If photo taken does not match the one in the database, no result is achieved. Our software recognizes even a single part of a given object. Furthermore, if the photo entered by the user is in B/W and the painting is in color, or vice-versa, the software should be able to recognize the object. However, even the most advanced software can return incorrect results. We have tried to minimize the problem, but there is always the possibility that an artwork in the database will not be found, if the photo hasn’t been taken correctly. These are the reasons why, providing both research methods, we always recommend the manual one.
Could you describe the APP’s main features?
The APP opens in the “Stolen Items” section, where all the artworks declared stolen in the country from which you connect are automatically displayed. However, the user will be able to decide to see the stolen items independently of his localization, thanks to a personal decision that will allow him to display always a specific country.
By typing on Search, a screen appears with the tools “Manual Search” and “Visual Search“. From here you can proceed in searching for artworks, a search that can be saved by name and subsequently be modified or deleted [see saved searches]. In the APP chronology [history], however, it is not possible to modify the data. They will be automatically deleted after the 21st search.
The more specific the research, the more you will be protected by due diligence. When operating on “Manual Search“, by storing the search, you can prove that you have performed “due diligence“. Before buying an artwork, you need to make sure it is not stolen. It’s necessary to ask for the certificate of origin, or the import license, if it comes from another country, and even know who was the previous buyer. Through saved searches, you can show your good faith.
Instead by typing on “Visual Search“, the APP allows you to insert a photo of an art object (see Take a photo) using the visual search: from here you can access the camera or the library. The research is linked to three categories: Object Type, Medium / Technique, and Material. If you have a photo and you select these filters, the search will be more and more precise. As already mentioned, the visual search leaves no trace in the history and it is not possible to save the process: this was chosen to encourage manual search. If, while proceeding on “Manual Search” the object of interest is identified, the card can be viewed.
Is the object card in the APP set up like that of the database?
In the form prepared on ID-Art the essential data are shown, but the search results are the same that would appear by consulting the database. The use of the database necessarily requires longer times, precisely because the entries featured in the ID-cards are more numerous. The APP shows the most important info in the Object ID: to show them all on the APP ID-cards would have slowed down the smartphone’s functionality. After all, the APP is designed for agile use, aimed for a concrete answer.
How do you proceed if the research carried out by ID-Art leads to a positive result?
Once the stolen item has been identified, more operations can be carried out. By typing on the selected ID-card on the red button “Report to INTERPOL“, you can send the information to INTERPOL. This is a very important moment. The APP will lead directly to the smartphone’s e-mail app, with the automatic inclusion of the recipient’s email address. It should be borne in mind that during this procedure, by providing consent, you leave anonymity. A specific button appears on the screen to export the file in pdf, which allows you to send the document through other channels.
The possibility of creating your own archive in the APP is fascinating?
The inventory of objects is carried out through the “My inventory” button. In this section you can catalogue the artworks in your possession. Filing an artwork in your own inventory means protecting it. If in the future some of the artworks were to be stolen, you can report the theft with all the details to the TPC, which would send the information to the NBC, that in turn would send it to INTERPOL. It is essential to repeat that all the data entered in this section are not absolutely accessible to INTERPOL, which will simply know of the creation of a generic Object ID. The Object ID can be deleted or edited at any time with the addition of further elements useful for cataloguing.
In addition to cataloguing the artwork in his or her possession, the user can ask for an assessment of the object. Just think of custom’s personnel who do not know the data of an identified object: for example, the officers do not know its origin and, therefore, whether it’s a stolen object. This is one of the major problems for the operators on the streets. As well as for customers. So, the APP is not just for the mere inventory’s sake. By querying INTERPOL through the APP, with timely information, it’s possible to gain answers on what’s in front of you.
Therefore, cataloging objects in the APP has several purposes: to keep a personal inventory according to international standards, to use the ID-cards in case of theft, or during an operation, to request an assessment from an expert or a foundation. It’s useful when deciding to sell an item. Cataloging is also useful to avoid scams. When you act in this direction, the INTERPOL logo will no longer appear on the APP, because you are acting for personal purposes, which does not involve the institution.
The APP’s attention is not only directed to movable assets, but also to immovable ones. What does the use of ID-Art consist of in relation to a site of cultural interest?
The “Site card” section is designed for personal use only. We care a lot about this section. It is very useful in cases involving damage to a cultural asset, either caused by man or following a natural disaster. It would be interesting to be able to be in situ, document the damage with photos, by compiling exact data and geo-localizing it, to record and report what may have happened in an area of cultural interest.
Is it possible to use ID-Art to report the theft of a piece kept in your home?
No, this isn’t possible. The APP is useful when you decide to consult the database or if you want to catalogue the artworks in your possession. It is assumed that the information collected on a given object may turn out useful if necessary.
With the launch of ID-Art, what are INTERPOL’s expectations and, above all, how do you intend to entice users to download an APP of this type?
It is the first INTERPOL APP, no doubt it will interest many users. In our view, by using the APP, the citizen becomes an active part of a system that works to combat illicit traffic in works of art and protect them. You become an integral part of an ever-vigilant network: you have the INTERPOL database in your pocket, it is no longer possible to make up excuses, you can act alongside the Specialized Unit. You can go to an art gallery, take a photo, and see if the work that interests you is stolen. Basically, you are the protagonist of an operation that sees you fighting the crime. You have a tool that makes you an actor, not only because it’s your job as a specialized policeman or because you are a custom’s officer, but because as a citizen you can protect cultural heritage: that is an expression of your identity. Those with civic sense participate in the fight against crime and also know how to defend themselves. The greatest hope is that the ID-Art becomes a proper technical tool in the hands of those who carry out investigations on a daily basis, and that it will be used as much as possible to increase the chances of finding the stolen works of art. Citizens should be encouraged to catalogue the artworks in their possession, because in the event of theft, information can be transmitted to Lyon and researched in the world through INTERPOL.
[Translated by Tinamaria Obershaw].
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Archeologa e giornalista.