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How technology is changing the way we tackle art theft

7 July 2016

The recent news from Madrid of the arrests of seven people linked to the theft of five paintings by Francis Bacon has highlighted the role that technology can play in the fight against art crime.

When the Art Loss Register was contacted by an individual wishing to search a Bacon painting against our database of stolen and missing art, we quickly matched it to one of the stolen works. We then passed the information we had received straight on to the Spanish police.

It has now been revealed that the police were able to track down the digital camera that had taken the images, thus leading to the arrest of the person who took the photos and others.

Technology is proving an increasingly useful tool in tracking down stolen paintings. At the Art Loss Register, we have seen works of art searched against our database, the pictures of which were taken on a smartphone and therefore tagged with geolocation data. Possibly not the best way to keep hidden the stolen painting in your barn.

Information such as locations, or the model of camera that took the image, undoubtedly makes the lives of those investigating art crime much easier. But the greatest advantage of digital imaging that we have observed is simply how much easier it is for people to find photos of works that have been stolen from them, and then to circulate those photos to assist in the identification of the works should they reappear later on. Gone are the days of faxing images across the world and hoping that they are still vaguely recognisable at the other end.

It is not all positive though; technology is a double-edged sword and can benefit criminals too. High quality images make it much easier to rapidly create reproductions to hang in place of stolen art, meaning that thefts such as the nine Warhols found to be missing in LA last year can go undetected for years. Similarly, technology makes reconnaissance and the recording of targets easier and opens up new routes to carry out a theft. Hacking into the accounts of those shipping art, to change the destination so that art is delivered into the thief’s hands at an empty address, is now all too possible. By the time anyone notices the error, both the thieves and the art will be long gone, having left only an impenetrable signature with the courier. The worst case scenario (still, thankfully, hypothetical) might be someone hacking into a museum’s collection management system and altering records so that a picture that is stolen no longer shows up even on the museum’s inventory.

Ultimately technology simply provides a range of forensic tools. It then takes skill to establish their relevance of as part of the process of tracking down a stolen picture.

The Spanish police made good use of technology to find and arrest individuals who could be connected with the crime. But in the end the reason they were able to do so is just the same as ever. The best leads come from a criminal’s mistakes. In this case that was the mistake of using an identifiable camera, and failing to remove identifying information from the image files. Had this been done, or had they simply used a cheap digital camera bought with cash (they rented theirs), then they would have been a lot less likely to be caught. Technology moves on, but mistakes will always be made. In the case of these Bacons the question is whether this will ever lead to the pictures themselves, which appear still to be missing.