Interpol’s New App Allows Anyone to Help Track Down Stolen Art

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen or Spring Garden by Vincent van Gogh, stolen from the Singer Laren museum in March 2020.
The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen or Spring Garden by Vincent van Gogh, stolen from the Singer Laren museum in March 2020. / Groninger Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Interpol, the international crime-fighting police force, catalogs stolen works of art in a massive online database that currently includes more than 52,000 items. Now, as Smithsonian magazine reports, the organization is giving the general public a chance to get in on the investigative action through a new mobile app called ID-Art.

Once you're on the app, you can upload a photo of an item (or submit details manually using the search function) and it will let you know if it matches any missing artwork in their database. In this way, Interpol hopes to cut down on the number of art dealers and collectors unwittingly trafficking stolen goods.

You might expect that anyone buying or selling artworks would be well-informed enough to realize when they come across some precious product of thievery. And if the item in question was part of an especially infamous crime—like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery of 1990, considered the largest art heist in history—that might be true. But it’s not always that simple. Culturally significant works get looted with surprising frequency, and countries have different standards for proving an item’s origin before it’s auctioned off or changes hands in some other above-board way. In other words, it’s not uncommon for a stolen artwork to ultimately end up in the private collection of an oblivious citizen.

A preview of ID-Art.
A preview of ID-Art. / INTERPOL

Private collectors and museums can also use the app to catalog works that haven’t been stolen … yet. Basically, you build your own small online database within the app with photos and other details about your collection, and if something does disappear, investigators can access the information immediately.

The app has a preservation purpose, too. After you visit a cultural heritage site, you can submit images and other details about it, which will help create a crowdsourced, up-to-date record of its condition. If the place suffers damage, preservationists will be able to see what exactly got damaged and use that intel to inform their restoration efforts.

In short, ID-Art is Interpol’s attempt to make art recovery a more global operation (though it’s currently only available in four languages: Arabic, English, French, and Spanish). If you’d like to join the community, you can download the app for free via Apple or Google Play.

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]