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Reporting Stolen Art to Art Registries

In California, law enforcement agencies input stolen property information into the Automated Property System (APS) maintained by the California Department of Justice. However, this database, like similar ones in other states, was primarily designed for serialized items such as cameras and computers. It is not well suited for keeping track of non-serialized property such as original art.

As the problem of stolen cultural property increases, it has given rise to the formation of art registries. These are automated databases specifically designed to keep track of stolen art as well as other types of historical and cultural property.

There are several reasons why we should make use of art registries.

First of all, they are widely used databases containing unique property not listed elsewhere. Because they are searchable, they can result in the recovery of stolen property. The Art Loss Register and Interpol are international in scope which is useful in view of the fact that more and more art is being recovered in countries outside the originating jurisdiction. The Art Loss Register also conducts active searches for stolen property when it reviews artworks submitted for sale or auction through subscribers.

Another advantage of art databases has to do with records retention. Stolen art may not surface for many years. When it does, it may now be in the possession of a bona fide purchaser who will demand proof that the theft of the property was reported to the police. Depending upon the records retention policy of the agency, it is entirely possible that no remnant of the original police investigation will exist. Crime reports and investigative notes are often archived for a predetermined amount of time and then finally destroyed. The original investigator may now be retired or deceased. Unless the victim had the foresight to order a copy of the crime report and to store it where it can be found later, that victim may be unable to prove that a police investigation was ever conducted. With over 100,000 thefts and burglaries reported each year, a city the size of Los Angeles can have a fleeting organizational memory for past events.

Art registries, on the other hand, generally do not purge their files. Once an artwork is entered into the database, it remains there until found. The Art Loss Register requests ownership information when items are registered and the FBI’s National Stolen Art File even requires a copy of the crime report when a law enforcement agency registers the artwork. A photo of the artwork, along with its description and the crime report, are all optically scanned for later retrieval.

One additional reason for using art registries is related to due diligence. Registering a stolen artwork with readily accessible art databases such as the ones listed below can assist in complying with due diligence requirements. This will help to demonstrate that victims did everything possible to alert others of the stolen status of their art. In a similar manner, bona fide purchasers can demonstrate due diligence by querying an art registry prior to buying an artwork to help ensure they will have clear legal title.

Some of the more common art databases available to law enforcement and victims of crime in the U.S. include:

Art Loss Register (ALR)
1st Floor
63-66 Hatton Garden
+44 20 7841 5780

Maintains a worldwide database of lost and stolen art. It is a for-profit business that works closely with auctions houses, insurance companies and law enforcement. Victims can register an item as long as a police report has been made. Private parties can request a search.

National Stolen Art File (NSAF)
Federal Bureau of Investigation
MT/TCU, Room 5096
935 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20535

Maintains an automated database of stolen art and other cultural property. Entries are only accepted from law enforcement agencies – not directly from victims. Searches conducted only through law enforcement officers.

U.S. Department of Justice
Cultural Property Program
1301 New York Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20530

Maintains a worldwide database of stolen art. Sends out art theft notices to law enforcement agencies in member nations. Entries are only accepted from law enforcement – not directly from victims. A CD of their database can be purchased.