Stolen Art Comes Into (Virtual) View

The Israeli-born, New York-based artist Ziv Schneider has created a museum that does not exist in the physical world, for items that have been stolen from their real-life homes.

Dan Friedman

NEW YORK – On December 7, 2002, at approximately 8 A.M., two men climbed onto the roof of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and from there entered the building. The loot they made off with justified the risk: two canvases by Vincent van Gogh, estimated to be worth $30 million. The thieves were caught and convicted in 2004, but the works – “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen,” painted, respectively in 1882 and 1884 – have never been recovered. The museum is offering a reward of €100,000 for information about their whereabouts.

Even though these paintings are no longer on display, viewers using the Oculus Rift virtual-reality, head-mounted display can see them in impressive size and almost within touching distance. The Museum of Stolen Art is a virtual project conceived by Ziv Schneider, a 30-year-old New York-based Israeli artist and – as she describes herself on her website – “creative technologist.”

In addition to the Van Goghs, Schneider’s museum contains 60 other artworks that were stolen and never found. “Visitors,” who can avail themselves of the headset at work or home – anywhere with a computer connection – are invited to stroll through this sui generis museum, and listen to audio clips that supply historic and cultural information about each item.

“I find the discourse about virtual reality to be limited,” Schneider tells me when we meet at New York University, where she’s been a student for the past two years. “Clips that demonstrate games, or projects of Oculus Rift, are aimed mostly at gamers. I’m not so interested in diving like a dolphin or flying like a bird. I’m obsessed with archives, and in that connection I wondered how it would be possible to harness virtual technology to promote matters of public policy or crime prevention.”

Schneider’s endeavor, which began as an academic exercise while studying for an M.A. in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, has received wide media exposure lately after being featured on the wired.com website and several technology blogs. The unexpected attention generated a worldwide response (“I found myself being interviewed on the same day by a Danish newspaper and an American fashion blog,” she says), and persuaded Schneider that her project has commercial potential.

In one of her courses, called “Cabinet of Wonders,” students had to create a museum of his or her own. “I have a tendency to delve into peculiar databases,” she says, “and I found Interpol’s database of art crimes. It’s free and accessible on the Web, but most of it is super-boring – endless lists, with the name of an item and the date it was stolen.” Nevertheless, this digital digging “made me realize that there are tremendous cultural works that have simply disappeared."

Dan Friedman

“We live an era in which there are two points of departure,” Schneider continues. “The first is that everything is documented, and the second is that everything that possesses digital documentation will be preserved for all time. In practice, though, many of these works now exist only as small low-quality images, and there is no real possibility of enjoying and appreciating them.” Her museum, she adds, allows visitorsto see the art as it was originally meant to be exhibited.

The two databases Schneider draws on – from Interpol and the FBI – contain quite a few classic works of art, worth many millions of dollars. This fact will gladden every visitor to the Museum of Stolen Art, which devotes one of its “spaces” to famous works. Hanging on the “walls” are works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Vermeer and Monet, among others.

A 3-D illusion

Like every experience that makes use of virtual reality, putting on the headset manufactured by the Oculus VR company (which will become available to the public later this year) creates a three-dimensional illusion that allows the user to make his way through the museum by turning his head in a particular direction or with the use of a joystick.

For example, minutes after a brief audio clip welcomed me – and added, “If you come across any of these pieces outside of the museum, please report [it] immediately to the international police” – I entered the room devoted to famous painters and spent some time contemplating “View of the Sea at Scheveningen.” The painting, for which Schneider selected a picture frame as part of her role as both curator and designer of the exhibition, is a poetic work in oils showing a sailboat approaching the shore of a Dutch fishing village under looming clouds.

On the adjacent wall is a masterpiece by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, “The Concert,” showing two women and a man playing music in a salon with a checkered black-and-white floor. Painted in 1664 and stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, “The Concert” is considered the world’s most valuable unrecovered stolen painting, with an estimated value of $200 million.

However, Schneider doesn’t want the museum to function solely as a tomb for famous artists. Thus, with the exception of that one exhibition space, most of the museum is devoted to works of art looted from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“[At NYU] we had a workshop with a curator who preserves cultural treasures and had recently returned from Afghanistan, where he worked with directors of cultural institutions and taught them how to document their collections,” Schneider notes. “Many of the items that were looted there in recent years are ancient statuettes or undocumented art objects. In the Interpol archive most do not even bear an artist’s name or a conjectured period. When I looked at stolen works by Iraqi painters, I saw half of the names misspelled.”

Dan Friedman

Schneider’s interest in art looted during wartime dates back to her adolescence. “I grew up in Hadera,” she says. “At home we had a unique wooden box that my father brought me from Lebanon, where he served in the army. The box has an engraving of something that looks like a scene from Shakespeare ... It made me think about all the items from people’s homes that were looted by soldiers across history. Even if some of these items exist in databases, the general public has no access to them.”

Why did you choose a virtual reality-headset medium, rather than design a site or an app?

“The general tendency in school is to create apps, brand identities or presentations, and I was a little tired of that. I am very much into museum spaces, and I wanted to use Oculus to solve a problem: how to provide an experience of roaming around in a museum that doesn’t exist in the real world. So it was important for me to design the virtual space like a museum in every respect, with an entry space, white walls, a central hall and separate exhibition areas.

“For the museum exterior, I designed a blue sky with clouds, so there’s something of a sense of fantasy, or a museum located in the sky. I wanted to splice the interactive experience, in which you forget that you’re wearing a headset, with the possibility of doing things that you can’t do in a real physical space.”

You’re displaying works of art that are worth millions – did you check to see who holds the copyrights on them?

“No, because I believe I am providing a service. If any of the works are tracked down in the wake of someone’s visit to the virtual museum, I will undertake to remove it from the wall immediately.”

At present, a short clip of the project can be viewed online at Schneider’s official site, but it’s not yet ready for downloading at the Oculus Rift app store.

“I’m looking for a way to raise funds and release it as an app for virtual-reality platforms,” Schneider explains. “I’m also examining possibilities of presenting the project in a gallery or in museum spaces, and I’m in initial contacts with galleries in New York. After all the publicity, I was contacted by insurance companies that fight art thefts and want to buy the work.”

The question is whether the public really has a need for this technology. After all, Google recently announced it was dropping its Google Glass project due to lack of demand.

“I don’t think the failure of Google Glass is related to virtual reality. The product wasn’t good enough ... The disparity between pretension and execution was simply ridiculous. Google spoke in terms of a new existential experience, but the headset was awkward and heated up in a second. In contrast, Google Cardboard [a product that turns a mobile-phone screen into a 3-D experience] is substantially different. You can use it for a limited time – to play a game, for example – which is more effective than something worn on the face 24 hours a day.”