WARSAW, POLAND — The Division of Looted Art at Poland’s Ministry of Culture is a small office with a big mandate. Since 1992, the four-person unit has been charged with collecting and digitizing information about the more than 63,000 objects stolen from the Polish state, churches and private citizens during World War II.
Until now, the division’s website was only able to exhibit 3,000 of the objects. Thanks to an upgrade and reintroduction in March, today almost 14,000 lost pieces — including Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” taken by the Nazis from a family collection in Krakow — will have a virtual home.
“The Internet has become the main source of finding information on Polish looted art,” said Karina Chabowska, an employee, seated next to several filing cabinets full of photographs and files about stolen works waiting to be uploaded. “The new site will be important to exchange information with auction houses, with people from museums and also to give them some tips of what to do if they find pieces of art that could have been looted or stolen from Poland.”
Technology has given new impetus to the search for lost and stolen art. Through projects ranging from websites to digital fingerprinting of artworks, governments and organizations are now able to share information and images of missing works widely, allowing the images to be recognized and, it is hoped, returned.
“For people interested in lost treasure, technology has made it much more likely that we will find things like, for example, locations to excavate to find dozens of other hiding places,” said Noah Charney, an art historian and founder of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art. “So technology has made the world both smaller and more transparent.”
Technology has also given new life to lost or stolen works that have not been exhibited for decades, allowing the public to see them for, in some cases, the first time. The Gallery of Lost Art, a virtual exhibition organized by the Tate Gallery in Britain, ran for a year until July 2013; a book about the project was published in October.
The Lost Museum project in Poland, started in 2009 in coordination with the Division of Looted Art, each year releases an online video of 40 different stolen pieces along with their stories.
Even everyday online tools have played a role in finding lost art: The small camera feature in the search box on Google Images can take an uploaded image and look for a similar one on the web.
“I was searching for some stolen paintings and by happenstance I found a copy of one being sold on eBay for $250,000,” said Anthony Amore, an art detective based in Boston. “The power of being able to search if someone is offering to sell something on the Internet is a really impressive thing.”
Satellite imagery is playing a growing role, from uncovering buried treasure in places like Egypt and Syria to locating excavation sites that have been pillaged.
When Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist and director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama, was working on her doctorate at Cambridge University, she developed techniques to process satellite data to map and discover previously unknown sites in Egypt. She now uses that knowledge to help map sites that have been looted since the unrest began in the country three years ago. The satellite imagery from before and now helps point out sites that have been touched by tomb raiders eager to sell ancient Egyptian antiquities onto the international market.
Ms. Parcak has calculated that in the last three years about $2 billion worth of artifacts have been looted from Egypt each year.
“With satellite imagery, you know exactly where it is going on, the extent of it and the size of it,” she said. “If looters are looting tombs from 600 B.C., then you know typically what things in a tomb would date back to that time. So all of a sudden you go from seeing a hole from space to knowing the objects and artifacts that will be on sale on the international market.”
Another technological tool that could make the hunt for lost and stolen works easier in the future is FingArtPrint, a project subsidized by the European Union and funded in part by the German technology company NanoFocus. The development stage of the project, which ran from 2005 to 2008, focused on using a tool called a profilometer to measure the roughness and color of a small section of a work of art, creating a sort of digital fingerprint. The exact location of the fingerprint would be known only by the owner, whether a private collector or an institution, and held in a database. If a fingerprinted work of art was stolen and then resurfaced, the database could help determine whether the piece was authentic or a forgery.
“Say you buy a set of fine china cups in porcelain,” explained Bill Wei, the project head of the FingArtPrint project and a senior conservation scientist with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. “If you can determine they are in the same position, I can tell you which is your cup and which is mine because you can see at that scale in the glaze of porcelain really tiny bubbles. The human eye cannot see them, but the instrument can, and there is no way that you will have in the same position the size and number of bubbles from one cup to another.”
Though several museums and private collectors were interested in fingerprinting their objects, FingArtPrint has yet to be rolled out on a large scale for lack of funding. The company is seeking new investors to carry the project forward.
Repositories of information on lost or stolen art have, for the most part, been generous about sharing what they know. Several databases and websites exist that are dedicated to documenting and finding lost, looted and destroyed art from World War II — an activity that was highlighted recently in “The Monuments Men,” the George Clooney-directed film based on the true story of U.S. soldiers who saved art looted by the Nazis.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London uploaded the “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) list to its website; the 482-page document, which was believed to have been compiled in 1941-42, is an inventory of art confiscated by the Nazis, listing information on the provenance and fate of each work.
The Free University of Berlin operates a site with entries about the provenance of many of the works that were included in the “Entartete Kunst” inventory. The Lost Art Database, run by the German government, has compiled details on more than 160,000 objects lost during World War II. The database also contains bits of information on another 3.5 million lost or stolen objects, some of them whole library collections.
For these initiatives to thrive and grow, funding is required — much of it so far coming from taxpayers in the countries most concerned with finding lost or stolen art.
The Lost Museum project in Poland is, as much as anything else, an attempt to cultivate more interest and support by the Polish public. The museum’s first “exhibition” was a film on a continuous loop, broadcast onto the exterior walls of the Royal Castle in Warsaw during the popular annual Night of the Museums festival in 2009. The films are now shown throughout the country on that evening. The film this year will feature the graphic artist Marta Ignerska’s reinterpretation of a handful of missing works.
“It is one thing to do our job to find these missing pieces,” said Malgorzata Omilanowska, Poland’s deputy minister of culture. “The other is getting society to understand what we are doing.”
**This piece originally appeared in the International New York Times on May 8 2014.
1st photo, Night of the Museums 2nd photo, page from Lost Museum Project
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