Mar 5, 2007

Stolen Rockwell and Spielberg and Theft Databases


Steven Spielberg has discovered a stolen Norman Rockwell painting, Russian Schoolroom in his art collection. The work was listed on the FBI's art crimes web site. There don't seem to be any good images of this work on the web. This is a small thumbnail. In terms of the original theft, the FBI website states the following:

On June 25, 1973, an original Norman Rockwell painting, entitled Russian Schoolroom, was stolen during a late night burglary in Clayton, Missouri. The painting was part of a Norman Rockwell Exhibit sponsored by the Chicago office of the Circle Galleries, later known as Arts International Galleries. At the time of the theft, the Russian Schoolroom, oil on canvas, measured 16" X 37", and was presented in a 2' x 4' frame of dull gold-white molding. This painting may also be referred to as The Russian Classroom or Russian Schoolchildren.

Records for the Russian Schoolroom indicate that after the theft in 1973 and prior to 1988, the painting’s location was unknown. In October 1988 Russian Schoolroom was sold at auction in New Orleans, Louisiana. Records revealed that at that time, the painting was associated with Circle Galleries (Chicago) and the Danenburg Gallery (New York). Neither gallery exists today.

Recent information determined that the same Russian Schoolroom was allegedly advertised for sale at a Norman Rockwell Exhibit in New York, circa 1989.

In July 2004, upon receipt of the information above, the FBI's newly formed Art Crime Team initiated an investigation to locate and recover the Russian Schoolroom.

It seems a member of Spielberg's staff came across the site. The FBI was then notified. There is no indication that Spielberg had any knowledge of the work's theft when he purchased it. Spielberg is a well-known collector of Rockwell. What this example does illustrate is a need for better and more comprehensive art databases. If collectors can check a work against one comprehensive database, then this kind of mistake will surely be avoided, and the incentive for stealing art will decrease dramatically.

The Art Loss Register is the most prominent of the stolen art databases. Here is a recent article on the work it does. It has been responsible for a number of high-profile recoveries. However, I am a bit skeptical because it is a closed database. It costs about $50 per search, and not everyone can search it. Julian Radcliffe, the ALR's chairman has said in interviews in the past that the reason the database is not public is it would allow the thieves to know the status of a work they have stolen. That may be true, but I'm still a bit skeptical. If it became routine to post a picture of your painting on a free, easy-to-use website, I think the same goals would be furthered.

It seems a company may have designed a way to use simple camera phones to compare a work to a stolen art database:


Thanks to a new development from the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology IPK, the investigator can now simply take a photo of the art object with his cell phone and send it instantly to a central server. The researchers’ new image analysis system automatically compares this picture with the user’s database. The system identifies similar objects on the basis of visual features such as their shape, outline, color or texture, and returns a list of the top ten closest hits to the cell phone in a matter of seconds. If the picture is among the works in the database, the art detective can react immediately. “The system is remarkably easy to operate,” says Dr. Bertram Nickolay, head of the department for security systems. “Since it was built mostly from standard modules, it’s also a cost-effective solution.” Furthermore, the system is immune to interference factors such as a poor photograph of the work of art. Reflections caused by flash photography or by excessive brightness have no effect on the image analysis in the central server.

This could work, and it could work well. I imagine that the first company which figures out how to make a simple and easy database will earn a lot of money, and will do wonders for insuring the legitimacy of the art trade. My personal preference would be to have a free system similar to wikipedia, which allows anyone to use and access the site. Until there is a comprehensive database which ties together all of these various databases though, we will continue to see people unwittingly purchasing stolen works.

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