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Cracking Down on Art Theft

August 28, 1994

The thought of smuggled plutonium falling into the wrong hands makes the blood run cold. Smuggled artworks in the wrong hands--well, that seems by comparison a minor matter. But the unchecked despoiling of an artistic heritage can leave wounds that take centuries to heal.

For example, Eastern Europe--having dismantled the old, totalitarian controls and not yet having developed effective new controls--is suffering a wave of art theft as bad as a sack by a barbarian horde.

Who are the customers for stolen national treasures? Unscrupulous international art dealers are ultimately just middlemen. The ultimate consumer is typically a museum that buys a fine work "of unknown provenance" in good faith or a wealthy private collector who, in good faith or not, does the same.

Collectors and other buyers who deliberately ask no questions deserve to be regarded as criminals. But what of those who ask questions and are given plausible but unverifiable answers? They are now an innocent part of the problem. To make them an effective part of the solution calls for the sharing of data among not just art museums but also insurance companies, police departments and customs offices.

International standards for art history documentation exist, but they need to be both simplified and refined if they are to function as an effective tool in so many different hands. Unless and until this step has been taken, the assembly of existing databases into a single computerized international shield against art theft is impossible.

By taking this unexciting but indispensable first step, the Art History Information Program at the J. Paul Getty Trust is performing a service that may yet liberate a few stolen artworks and put a few art thieves behind bars.

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