Stolen Works of Art - Object ID Discussions between the Getty Information Institute and leading national and international umbrella agencies and government bodies in 1993 established that there was a consensus on the need to collectively address issues relating to documentation practices and the implementation of international standards.


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Stolen Works of Art: Object ID

 Discussions between the Getty Information Institute and leading national and international umbrella agencies and government bodies in 1993 established that there was a consensus on the need to collectively address issues relating to documentation practices and the implementation of international standards. 

In July of that year the Institute convened a meeting in Paris to discuss the possibility of developing an international collaborative project to define documentation standards for identifying cultural objects. The meeting was attended by representatives of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (now the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), the Council of Europe, the International Council of Museums, Interpol, UNESCO, and the US Information Agency.

The participants agreed on the need for such an initiative and recommended that it focus on developing a standard for the information required to identify cultural objects, and on the mechanisms for encouraging the implementation of the standard. As a result of these consultations, a project was defined and initiated, one of the objectives of which was to recommend an international 'core' documentation standard for the identification of cultural objects.

The findings of the surveys and recommendations of the roundtable meetings established that there was strong agreement on the categories of information that should constitute the standard. The result is Object ID, a standard that is best defined in terms of the ways in which it can be implemented:

  • to provide a checklist of the information required to identify stolen or missing objects,
  • as a documentation standard that establishes the minimum level of information needed to describe an object for purposes of identification,
  • as a key building block in the development of information networks that will allow divers organizations to exchange descriptions of objects rapidly,
  • to provide a solid basis for training programmes to teach the documentation of objects.

The standard has been developed in response to an identified need, and is designed to be used by non-specialists and to be capable of being implemented in traditional, non-computerized ways of making inventories and catalogues as well as in more sophisticated computerized databases. Because Object ID is designed to be used by a number of communities, and by specialists and non-specialists alike, it identifies broad concepts rather than specific fields and uses simple, non-technical language. Similarly, its function as a checklist usable by the public led to the decision to present the definitions of the information categories in the form of questions - such as 'What materials is the object made of?' - an approach that was found to be more comprehensible to non-specialists than definitions in the form of statements.

From the outset, the project recognized the need to work collaboratively with organizations in six key communities:

  • Cultural heritage organizations (including museums, national inventories, and archaeological organizations)
  • Law-enforcement agencies
  • Customs agencies
  • The art trade
  • Appraisers
  • The insurance industry

The information needs of these users vary, but all need documentation that makes it possible to identify individual objects. Building a broad consensus across these communities on the categories of information essential for identifying objects was the essential precondition to a successful outcome for this initiative.

The first step toward establishing consensus on this core information was to identify and compare the information requirements of each of these communities, to understand the purposes for which their information is collected, and to determine how it is used and with whom it is shared. These requirements were identified by a combination of background research, interviews, and, most importantly, major international questionnaire surveys.

The first of these surveys was carried out between July and December 1994 by the Getty Information Institute, with the endorsement of the Council of Europe, ICOM, and UNESCO. The survey elicited responses from organizations in 43 countries, including many major museums and galleries, heritage documentation centres, Interpol, and a number of national law-enforcement agencies. The survey also took account of existing standards and standard setting initiatives in the museum world, including those of the International Council of Museums, the Museum Documentation Association (UK), and the Canadian Heritage Information Network.

The results of this preliminary survey - published in July 1995 as Protecting Cultural Objects through International Documentation Standards: A Preliminary Survey - demonstrated that there did, indeed, exist a broad consensus on many of the categories of information that are candidates for inclusion in the proposed standard. Encouraged by these findings, the project went on to survey the information needs of the other key communities, namely dealers in art, antiques, and antiquities; appraisers of personal property; art insurance specialists; and customs agencies. Over 1,000 responses were received from organizations in 84 countries and dependencies, making this survey the largest of its kind ever carried out.

It is important to point out that Object ID is not an alternative to existing standards; rather it is a core standard created for a very specific purpose - that of describing cultural objects to enable them to be identified. As such it can be incorporated into existing systems and nested within existing standards. For example, in August 1997 the Executive Council of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) adopted a resolution that "A museum should be able to generate from its collection information system such data (preferably according to the 'Object ID' standard) that can identify an object in case of theft or looting." Similarly, it has been nested within the Spectrum standard for museum information developed by the Museum Documentation Association (United Kingdom). It has also been incorporated into a number of law-enforcement databases, including the National Stolen Art File of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (United States).

Combating the illicit trade in cultural objects requires international collaboration among a variety of types of organizations in both the public and private sectors. The contribution of the Object ID project has been to identify a minimum standard for describing cultural objects, to encourage the making of descriptions of objects in both private and public ownership, and to bring together organizations that can encourage the implementation of the standard, as well as those that will play a part in developing networks along which this information can circulate.

Object ID has been translated into 13 languages.

When supplying descriptions of works of art, the National Central Bureaus of Interpol's 178 member countries use standardized forms called CRIGEN/ART forms. These forms exist in Arabic, English, French and Spanish and are used to enter data on stolen works of art into Interpol's database at the General Secretariat. This ensures that all police departments use the same vocabulary to describe the same objects.

Object ID is fully compatible with Interpol's CRIGEN/ART forms and its database.


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