Combat against Illicit Traffic

Floris Guntenaar, Foundation, the Netherlands


Present unworkable situation:
The European Commission requires the owner of disputed objects to prove that an object has not been stolen.
Approximately 125 databases of missing objects are presently available on the Internet.
This decentralized storage of relevant information makes combatting illicit traffic nearly impossible. Originally meant as a public information database to be consulted by police, custom, art dealers and others, the Art Loss Register makes searching by the average Sherlock - who is not trained as an Art Historian - nearly impossible if not unworkable.
The solution to the present problem is the cooperation of museum networks working 'bottom-up' within their domains instead of the present 'top-down' process by Police, Customs and Interpol, who are bound by a diversity of laws and local regulations - which resulted in the current 125 scattered databases of stolen art.

Our paper will address these legal problems, the solutions offered based on the most recent IT developments in Collection Management Systems, a proposed data model, the synchronization of data packages and quick and the easy 'positive' registration and documentation of cultural heritage objects.

Keywords: Illicit Traffic, Cultural Heritage, theft,


Protection at the source

The safety of objects at the source – Museum, Cultural heritage institution, Government, Churches, etc. – is the responsibility of the owner or caretaker.
Access and exits of the premises are to be protected and well guarded.
We do not address this issue in this paper.

‘Negative’ and ‘Positive’ cataloguing and documentation

Negative cataloguing refers to the absence of the digitized cataloguing of an object.
This shortcoming causes a loss of crucial time by publishing stolen objects in an online Red List. Images may not be available, the minimum required ‘Object ID’ description does not yet exist.
Opposed to ‘Negative’ cataloguing ‘Positive’ cataloguing means that the collection items are individually registered and documented in digital form according to the minimal requirements as proposed by the Getty Object ID standard (1997).
Benefits: fast accusation in case of theft or loss, availability of images, direct publication in a central database supporting automated export of data to Interpol, Art Loss Register and press.
Result: discouragement of criminals in terms of possible sale and fence.


At present the Object ID (1997) proves not always to work properly since the people involved in the process of first line identification are – in many cases – not qualified as either art historian or specialist in the field of cultural heritage.
The Object ID checklist – launched in 1997 – is still relevant. However, the techniques that are presently available for documentation and identification are quite augmented.

New initiative and proposed project

  • The establishment of a Central Database and Red List
  • Quick and low cost cataloguing
  • Publication of objects in Red List ‘bottom-up’ opposed to ‘top-down’.
  • Synchronization of condensed data packages from different databases
  • Image matching


1.1 An important International Issue

Art theft, illegal export of archaeological findings, religious artefacts and the like, are the victim of international operating criminal networks. A serious threat against the preservation of National and/or Local appointed Cultural Heritage of importance.

1.2 Estimated value of illicit trade of cultural objects

The actual value of the global illicit trade in cultural property is unknown and most experts are hesitant to estimate a value. Estimates that do exist range in size from $300 million to $6 billion per year, with Interpol estimating $4 to $5 billion, and the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Program (ISPAC) estimating $6 to $8 billion. This report creates a range by taking the average of the low estimates and the average of the high estimates reported above. The result is an annual value of $3.4 to $6.3 billion.

Approximately 95% of the stolen or illegally exported property does not return to their countries of origin, due to the existence of a well-structured black market attracted by high performance and low risk crime.  Within this scheme, stolen cultural property crosses borders and changes hands from one art dealer to another in a chain so intricate that it is very difficult to identify.

While the cultural journey takes a fictional story about its origin the objects are often accompanied by forged documents.

Within this scheme, the supply chain seems to be simple: the supply of cultural goods coming from countries of origin, the demand created by consumers in the countries of destination and an intricate network of transportation. Its compositional elements are, however, more complex:

The drastic increase in the value of antiques has precipitated infiltration and black market monopoly by organized crime. The looting and consequent predation of cultural heritage is a common practice. The involvement of criminal groups in this traffic results in a double threat: both the preservation of cultural heritage and national security.

This complexity is compounded: while in the places of origin the trade is illegal, in art markets of destination countries (USA, France, UK, Switzerland and the Netherlands, among others) the sale of antiquities is legal and open with minimal documentation.
In most cases, countries are not aware of the illegal export until it is discovered randomly. International law does not contribute specifically to combat this scourge. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, known as the Palermo Convention of 2000, and three additional protocols do not address the illicit trade in cultural property. Only the Economic and Social Council, in its report of July 2008, after recognizing the importance of preserving cultural heritage, urged members of the international community to enhance cooperation in combating theft and illegal trafficking of cultural property.

1.3. Situation

Currently, thefts in churches and museums, and the destruction and looting of archaeological and paleontological sites, and also moving of several public and private collections, cause great losses that threaten communities cultural rights.
Although efforts have been made to give an end to this situation, illicit traffic far from diminishing has increased over the years.  This is a very complex situation that will not improve until cultural objects are identified, a situation that is known as the first step that has to be executed to prevent, or at least discourage theft and illicit traffic.
International organizations that are dedicated to cultural heritage and its safety, recognize the importance of identifying mechanisms, for which they have established the ICOM Red Lists.  These Lists show most coveted objects or type of objects and with higher value in the market, so that they can be detected by the authorities in case of theft. However, these lists are still limited and very general.

1.4. Lack of identification of cultural objects

The lack of identification of cultural objects is a serious problem.  It even transcends the world of museums, which are institutions oriented to safeguard collections of a country, region or locality. A high percentage of these entities do not have a comprehensive record of their collections, so we can imagine which is the status of others such as religious spaces, private collections and commercial galleries, which are not specifically oriented to manage them, but are more oriented to their use and possession, so they are in a much more precarious level in recording their collections.

1.5. Unworkable situation

The set back in the fight against illicit traffic is mainly caused by the fact that approximately 125 individual databases of ‘stolen art’ are presently available on the internet.
This decentralized storage of relevant information makes this fight nearly impossible. Originally meant as public available information and database to be – among others – consulted by police, custom, art dealers and the Art Loss Register, this wide variety of databases makes searching by the average Sherlock – not being trained as Art Historian – nearly impossible if not unworkable.


Facing these handicaps it makes clear that general access to metadata information – in particular to objects with the status ‘stolen’ or ‘of national importance’ – in one Central Database would be the solution.

Also, user friendly, and clear accessible information should be comprehensible for non-professionals who are confronted with suspected objects.

Without such a scenario, illegal traffic will continue to flourish until these requirements will have been met.


An agreement between the Fundación Instituto Latinoamericano de Museos (ILAM) and the Dutch Foundation (CHF) – could implement a break-through here. Over 600 museums in 20 countries are member of ILAM and ILAM maintains connections with more than 7000 heritage institutions; they join to tackle the problem of illicit traffic continentally and regionally by installing and using one general accessible central database, named ILAM RED.
The innovative project is initiated by ILAM and will involve its network in the project’s expansion.

The continental and international approach will make use of the data model as developed by CHF as originated from the digital version of the Getty Object ID. The application was first presented at the ICOM conference in Barcelona in 2002 in concert with the Dutch Institute of Cultural Heritage (ICN).


2.1. Object ID 1997 – 2013

Object ID is an international standard for describing cultural objects. It is the result of years of research in collaboration with the museum community, international police and customs agencies, the art trade, insurance industry, and valuers of art and antiques.

The Object ID project was initiated by the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1993 and the standard was launched in 1997. It is being promoted by major law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Scotland Yard and Interpol, UNESCO, museums, cultural heritage organizations, art trade and art appraisal organizations, and insurance companies.

Having established the descriptive standard, the Object ID project now helps combat the illegal appropriation of art objects by facilitating documentation of cultural property and by bringing together organizations around the world that can encourage its implementation.
The illicit trade in cultural objects is now widely recognized as one of the most prevalent categories of international crime. The proceeds of thefts, forgery, ransoms, and smuggling operations involving cultural objects are often used to fund other criminal activities, the objects themselves serving as both a medium of exchange between criminals and a means of laundering the profits of crime.

The police have long recognized the importance of good documentation in the fight against art thieves. Documentation is indeed crucial for the protection of art and antiques, for police officers can rarely recover and return objects that have not been photographed and adequately described. Police forces have custody of large numbers of objects that have been recovered in the course of operations, but which cannot be returned to their rightful owners because there is no documentation that makes it possible to identify the victims.

2.2. New Object ID 2014

The original OBJECT ID checklist is being used to develop Collection Management Systems (CMS) that house the checklist and data as described in the OBJECT ID checklist.

These data form the key data within each program used to document objects of cultural heritage. Applications – using these key data – appear in many different forms, type of software and data model structures.

Most important is that these key data match when used for the original goal of the Object ID project: proper documentation and – when victim of illicit traffic –  enable identification of the suspect object.

Identifying is in most cases in the hands of customs and police. In other words: identification is in the first step of the process of recovery in most cases not executed by art historians and specialists, but by non-professionals in terms of insight and knowledge of the cultural heritage objects.

It is therefore of utmost importance to implement techniques – during documentation and digitization – to enable recognition in a later stage by non-professionals.

The original OBJECT ID checklist is a descriptive standard, the present digitization of objects demands comprehensive work performed by the professional curator or registrar and photographer.

“A picture is worth a thousand words”
Does reverse imaging – implemented in this project – thesauri in every possible language necessary?


2.3. Condensing the OBJECT ID checklist

Thanks to the new web and software techniques, and using Mobile devices for the first step documentation, most data as mentioned in the OBJECT ID checklist can be condensed into a basic set of data that makes the needed encyclopedic work quick and efficient. offers a Mobile CMS for this project in which basic checklist items   are included into a generic data package.

The original 1997 OBJECT ID checklist:

A. Make a picture
B. What type of object ?
C. Materials & Techniques
D. Measurements
E. Inscriptions and Markings
F. Distinguished features
G. Title
H. Subject
I. Date or Period
J. Maker
K. Short description
L. Keep the (digitized) information in a secure place

2.4. The “2014” documentation using present techniques:

Most important features of the APP CMS for Mobiles is the synch function with all – or any – existing CMS applications and the easy and quick way of A/V imaging.

Key data synchronized with any of the existing applications provide ‘space’ to add any data to each object as demanded by the responsible curator in the specific collection ‘type’ format of the connected CMS.

Key data are relevant for quick inventory and basic documentation according to the Object ID standard, added information such as key words, thesauri, history, etc. – needed for professional work and research – are added in the connected web application when appropriate.

A. Make a picture (from original checklist above)

Digital imaging by handhelds is at present common use. In contrast to the old process were images had to be imported to a computer and later into the Collection Management System, the images are now directly imported and connected to the object record.
There are no limits of the amount of images (pictures as well as video or sound) attached to the object record. NOTE: sound recording can later be used to add written information to the object. This means that when color scheme and scale measure are used while making the overall picture of the object – (D) “Measurements” – does not need actual fields on the mobile version of the CMS APP. (E) Inscriptions and Markings, F. Distinguished features and K. Short description are part of the detailed images made, no labeled fields are needed in the CMS APP.

B. Type of Object (from original checklist above)

To inventory objects that are all part of an infinite diverse ‘world’ collection of object ‘types’, thesauri are being developed (e.g. A&AT), constantly updated and translated. Obviously these thesauri are impossible to use on a mobile device, apart from the fact that most collection owners or managers are not fully equipped to work with the thesauri. Many collectors, and people working in small museums are not trained to use the A&AT properly.
Even more important, the first line recognition is executed by entities that have no knowledge or experience with the use of thesauri as a tool of ‘pre-sorting’ collection- or object- types using search criteria.

The CMS APP needs only the Key nodes of the thesauri to enable ‘sorting’ the synchronized data in the WEB CMS so more tags and keywords can be added in a later stage.

The CMS APP offers a simple standard list for quick inventory and categorization.

J. Maker/Creator (from original checklist above)

The entered name of the maker/creator will be synchronized with the webversion in a free field, the WEB CMS will be connected to a standard ‘Artist’ database to ensure proper and unique records. The free ‘maker’ field may still be used to add synonyms or other spelling.

L. Keep the (digitized) information in a secure place. (from original checklist above)

The sync function of the CMS APP supports the back-up of data and cloud storage.
Private servers can also be used. The sync function offers any type of (digital) storage.

2.5. Identification, key words, tags, thesauri

Given the fact that the process of digitization, inventory and key documentation will be an accelerating process, also the amount of added object records will be immense compared with those inventoried previously. Google, Flicker, Facebook, are examples of the huge amounts of records piling up in the cloud. Although key words and tags help to sort objects and/or pictures, the lack of proper standard data result in a ‘mer à boire’ of search results.

A professional museum standard documentation, proper storage and making use of the OBJECT ID standards in a new efficient way is now possible thanks to the technique of image matching.

The result: possible identification by non-professionals will make the illicit trade of cultural objects an unattractive undertaking.

Opposed to the present situation where 125 database of stolen artifacts are offered at the web, making a search and identification an impossible task, the process of the APP CMS inventory, sync with web based CMS, and image matching will solve most of the present problems.

2.6. Image matching and identification

Image matching functionality uses distinct pixel features to analyze visual content and identify matching images between a query image and a reference database. developed a generic APP for Mobiles meant to be used for quick inventory an to support large-scale use of the basic Object ID standard by museums worldwide.

This APP CMS offers the sync process to different web CMS applications and simultaneously to the image reference database.
Identification can now be executed by anyone that uses the the MOBIL CMS and – preferably – a standard background while inventorying and again when identifying.

2.7. Conclusion and benefits

  • The APP CMS is a tool for quick inventory and documentation of collection items of cultural importance.
  • The APP CMS is also a handsome tool for quick and easy cataloguing during fieldwork and by caretakers of religious objects not necessarily trained as curator or registrar.
  • Using the APP CMS means simple and basic collection cataloguing without the need for an expensive Collection Management System making the APP CMS a handsome ‘standalone’ tool for museums and cultural heritage institutions.
  • The synch function guarantees proper back-up and allows coupling to more extensive applications that include thesauri, extensive metadata, specific collection type formats, etc.

By offering the ILAM RED APP  – including the sync process to any existing CMS system and the ILAM ‘Illicit Traffic’ Red List – the ongoing process of new developments, and yet unknown new systems or added standards will form no barrier for the present and future inventories using the ‘condensed’ 2014 Object ID standards.

2.8. Legal restrictions

The present database as maintained by Interpol has legal restrictions because they are bound to local and regional laws and regulations. The period of publication of a stolen object is limited.

Publication of a stolen object is limited caused by the expiration time in which a stolen object becomes legally owned by the thief or receiver of stolen goods. The expiration time is a varying period in different countries.

Objects that are stolen in a particular country with a given expiration period, have to be removed from the Interpol database if the expiration period has ended.

Also, the Interpol database is obliged to publish stolen objects from private owners, or collectors that are not necessarily of cultural importance.

The answer to that problem is to lay the responsibility of publication in the hands of the owner – in our project plan – the holder of public collections, resulting in what we will call a ‘Bottom-up’ approach opposed to the present ‘Top-down’ process. Participation of all responsible parties in this ‘combat against Illicit Traffic’ is a necessity.

Focus of the Project concerns public collections only and consequently supports poorer museums and protection of archeological findings and religious collections.


As stated before, the necessity to consult more than 125 different databases makes it practically impossible to identify stolen objects. It is therefore inescapable to work together globally to reduce this number to one workable platform: The Central Red List Database.
To ensure success in the combat against illicit traffic, all stakeholders, collectors, art dealers, museums, other cultural heritage and governmental organizations – should unite in global and continental alliances – and follow ILAM’s initiative.


Jorge Sanchez Cordero, Doctor in de rechtsgeleerdheid Pantheon-Assas University, (Mexico 2012)

Report ‘Een diefstal- en incidentenregistratie voor cultuurgoederen in Nederland (NedArt, Antoon Ott,, NMV 2005)

Statistics ILAM 2011


Cite as:
. "Combat against Illicit Traffic." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published February 3, 2014. Consulted .

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