Looted artworks wanted by Interpol – including paintings by Picasso and Rembrandt – are now available to view online. John Lichfield steals a glimpse
The new online art gallery, one of the largest and the most eclectic in the world, belongs to the international police organisation, Interpol. It consists of an illustrated database of 34,100 works of art whose only common theme is that they have been stolen some time in the last 62 years and never recovered.
The Interpol catalogue, which has achieved an almost mythical status among art-lovers, was previously accessible only on CD-Roms, or, more recently, through DVDs. The organisation has now taken the decision to make its database available online to all comers. Or almost all comers. The only restriction is that you have to fill in an online application form which "may be vetted" (in other words, you can be sure you will be vetted) by the authorities in your home country. Art thieves or traffickers should not apply, at least not under their real names. Access codes take a few days to be issued while this vetting process takes place.
Once you are approved as a visitor, you can check whether the cut-price Picasso you have been offered by a man in a white van is one of the 16 different "hot" Picassos which have been declared to Interpol by national police forces. Or you can merely browse and marvel at the richness and quality of the art which has been stolen from museums and private collections all over the world since 1947.
The works illustrated here are a selection of some of the "Most Wanted" recently-stolen items in the Interpol virtual gallery. They were chosen for The Independent by Karl-Heinz Kind, the German senior detective who is the co-ordinator of Interpol's Works of Art Unit.
They include a painting by Paul Cézanne, Boy in a Red Vest, stolen in broad daylight by three men in ski-masks from the E G Bührle Collection in Zurich last year. Two of the four paintings stolen that day have been recovered, but not the Cézanne, which is said to be worth €40m (£37m).
The selection also includes a two-tonne Henry Moore bronze statue, Reclining Nude, stolen from the sculptor's foundation at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, in 2005. British police suspect the £3m sculpture may have been melted down by scrap metal thieves but it is still in the catalogue.
Mr Kind's gallery will shortly have a new exhibit, the René Magritte painting Olympia stolen in broad daylight from a small museum in Brussels last month. Its richest – and most depressing – single category consists of 2,600 works of Babylonian and other forms of ancient art pillaged from the Baghdad museum after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"As a matter of principle, we wanted the database to be open to as many people as possible," said Mr Kind. "The new site is intended partly, of course, for museums or art dealers who may be doubtful about a work of art that they have been offered. But it is also Interpol's intention that it should be used by the widest possible public.
"An art collector cannot be too careful. If he spends a lot of money on a piece of art which turns out to have been stolen, he may not just end up with a work to which he has no legal title. He might also face prosecution."
The Interpol catalogue does not include all the stolen art in the world – far from it. The Italian police's list of hot art contains a staggering 300,000 items, 10 times as many as the Interpol site. A French site, which uses the latest image identification technology but which is open only to the police, has 80,000 entries.
It is up to the 187 member states to decide which stolen works should be reported to the international police agency. Generally, it is the high quality works – those which are likely to be smuggled across frontiers – which are notified to the Interpol General Secretariat in Lyons. But Interpol does not make artistic or value judgements.
"Value is, in any case, very difficult to define," Mr Kind said. "We would never refuse something on the grounds of value alone."
Interpol refuses to list an item if no illustration is available. It refuses works which are parts of a series which are indistinguishable from one another. "We also only include items which have clearly been stolen, not just mislaid," Mr Kind said. "We are not a lost and found office."
The stolen art website, accessible through the general Interpol site (www.interpol.int) is not the first effort by the international police organisation to make its artistic treasures known to a wider public. In 1995, it began to issue CD-Roms containing its whole catalogue of stolen art. More recently, it went over to publishing DVDs. Interpol also issues posters of recently stolen works.
"The problem was that the CD-Roms and DVDs could not be constantly updated," Mr Kind said. "Art traders would complain to us that they could not be sure what was stolen and what was not. Now they can use this site. More than that, they have a responsibility to use this site."
The decision to throw the catalogue open was controversial. Fears were expressed by some police forces that the site might actually help art thieves and smugglers. Mr Kind rejects this criticism. "On the site, we have removed all information which might conceivably help criminals," he said. "All that is left is the illustration and description of the work and the place and date of its theft."
It is reported that art theft, and art smuggling, is a $5bn (£3.1bn) industry and the third most lucrative form of international crime after drugs and arms-trafficking. Mr Kind refuses to comment on such figures.
"Like all global trade in the modern world, art smuggling is certainly on the increase," he said. "But all figures are, frankly, guesswork. In any case, they fail to address the real issue. The damage done by the theft of art is not just financial. The cultural damage is much greater, and no one can put a figure on that."