August 2, 2011

Michelle D’Ippolito on “Discrepancies in Data: The Role of Museums in Recovering Stolen Works of Art”

By Mark Durney, Founder of Art Theft Central

Aspiring art crime researcher, Michelle D’Ippolito, who currently is completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland at College Park, discussed the role museums play in reporting and recovering stolen art. Many museums are reluctant to report art thefts due to their “concern for their public image and a persistent lack of funding.” According to D’Ippolito, the public’s opinion of a museum greatly affects its ability to attract visitors and donations, which in turn impacts its likelihood of receiving government grants. Unfortunately, in the event of a theft, the media frequently focuses its headlines on museums’ security shortcomings rather than on the possible factors that may have contributed to its loss. For example, after it was reported that 1,800 historic artifacts were missing from Pennsylvania’s state collections, the media published headlines, such as “PA. Auditor Says State Has Lost Treasure Trove of Artifacts” and “Audit: Pennsylvania museums’ artifacts ‘likely lost forever.’”

Alternatively, the media could have examined how the Pennsylvania State Historical and Museum Commission’s recent budget cuts and staff reductions may have contributed to its ability to accurately account for its collections. Funding is critical to a museum’s basic operations and its effort to preserve and protect cultural heritage. For example, it enables a museum to purchase current collections management software, which streamlines the inventory process, and it provides financing for the specialized training of museum personnel.

D’Ippolito continued her panel lecture with a discussion of the variety of national, international, and private stolen art databases available to art theft victims. While such databases are helpful to ensuring a quicker recovery of stolen art, their true potential has not yet been realized. Many countries do not consistently report museum theft due to their inability to register accurate statistics. According to D’Ippolito, this element coupled with the fact that many museums are reluctant to report theft has given rise to a situation that has little effect on deterrence.

In conclusion, D’Ippolito offered a few tactics in order to increase the reporting and recovery of stolen art. She identified eliminating discrepancies in the information required to report a theft; interfacing the current databases; creating a database related to the objects recovered with details of the investigation; and increasing museums’ participation in reporting theft.


Easy to say, nice ideas, but they've been around for more than 15 years. Unfortunately, there is no political will to create a central looted art database nor to federate existing looted art databases. Moreover, their search criteria and organizational protocols vary widely and might make searches ponderous.
What is sorely needed is a sea change in national and international policies governing cultural patrimony, the distinction between historical thefts tied to genocide and mass conflicts on one hand and current definitions of "cultural property."
Finally, the international community has not mobilized itself sufficiently to safeguard the rights of victims and to define in clear term the proper processes by which cultural objects can be safely returned to their rightful owners without invoking State rights of patrimony to thwart such returns.
Marc Masurovsky

"Many museums are reluctant to report art thefts due to their “concern for their public image and a persistent lack of funding.” I will not deny this, for I do not have any relevant statistics. Would it be possible to provide relevant stats / figures to substantiate the "Many museums are reluctant to report art thefts due to their “concern for their public image and a persistent lack of funding" statement?