An empty frame still hangs after the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has launched a smartphone app granting on-the-go access to its National Stolen Art File database. Users can search for stolen works and then either share their results or submit tips to the FBI via phone or electronic form, all while navigating the aesthetic world — and technology — of a 1990s spy movie.

The app features 4,522 stolen objects which are searchable by subject matter, medium, or artist. Many of the works are not photographed, and a simple search returns multiple reproductions of a stock photo of an empty silver frame. Users can also navigate through 21 categories ranging from paintings to guns to masks. An “other” category contains a whopping 1,482 objects, many of which could be sorted into actual groupings. For some reason, an entire category is dedicated to the database’s two stolen wine coolers, and eight works did not make it into any category at all.

In the April 10 announcement, FBI Art Crime agent Colleen Childers said the new program is a push to make the existing database more user-friendly, an aspiration that the app in its current state does not exactly speak to. A search for “George Washington” revealed a New England Patriots Super Bowl ring that was tragically described as “signatures of Pres. from George Washington to Harding on paper,” with its medium listed as “manuscript.” Further, artist searchers for “Vermeer” and “Manet” — two artists whose work was stolen in the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist — came back empty.

A search for “Vermeer” returned no results. (screenshot Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

The FBI’s new app may operate like a computer science student’s last-minute submission for a project designed to test their ability to sort, but luckily, international crime fighting organization Interpol launched a similar app in 2021. It includes American objects and is considerably more advanced. Users can enter highly specific information such as signature location and choose from pre-determined subject matter categories. Vitally, users can also conduct a reverse image search.

Like the Interpol app, the FBI’s new program also fails to incorporate systematically looted art held in held collections and museums. Glamorous art heists repeatedly make headlines, but many of the FBI’s recent seizures have been of trafficked antiquities. In the past few years, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has spearheaded an aggressive campaign against these stolen works, recovering and repatriating thousands of objects from institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. US authorities report having returned 20,000 objects since 2007, but the problem is nowhere near solved: An International Consortium of Investigative Journalists report last month found more than 1,000 objects linked to smugglers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.