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Tracking down art thieves by cell phone

The international databases of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectibles are vast and confusing. Art detectives have a hard time obtaining the required information quickly enough when on location. A new mobile art tracing system helps investigators to identify stolen goods.

The price at a private auction rises rapidly, and the painting quickly goes under the hammer. Although the art detective is there on the spot, he is not quite sure – is this picture one of the stolen items being sought worldwide, or isn’t it? Not only Interpol, but also private associations such as Art Loss Register have compiled databases of works of art that have been stolen from museums or private collections. How-ever, with international databases listing thousands of missing works of art, investigators at the auctions have difficulty searching them quickly enough for a painting of doubtful provenance. 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. The algorithms used in the IPK’s image analysis system can also be put to use in other areas. The researchers already have another pilot project up their sleeves: “Our system could be used to expose counterfeits, for example. An airport customs official with a mobile scanner can arrest someone carrying fake designer goods on the basis of distinctive features of the packaging,” Nickolay insists. The IPK is already engaged in negotiations with various police authorities. The system can also facilitate the search for missing vehicles and the examination of forged immigration papers. Further plans include mobile services for private collectors wanting to check for authenticity when purchasing a timepiece, for example.

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