The Public Catalogue Foundation Announces the Launch of Art Detective

LONDON, May 5, 2014

Art Detective is a ground-breaking initiative that connects public collections in search of information about their oil paintings with specialists and members of the public with relevant knowledge. Whether it is to discover the name of a beautiful 1930s society hostess or the artist behind a Dutch seventeenth-century still life, Art Detective will help collections put names to unidentified sitters, places and events depicted in their paintings and the unknown artists behind works.

Art Detective addresses the serious issue of insufficient – and declining – specialist knowledge within public art collections. It is available to all 3,000 or so collections that participate in Your Paintings, the website created by the PCF in partnership with the BBC. The vast majority of these participating collections – many of which are not museums – do not have fine art curators, whilst many have lost experienced curators through funding cuts over the years.

There are approaching 30,000 paintings on the Your Paintings website where the artist is not known and over 15,000 works where the attributions are uncertain. Some 8,000 portraits are missing the identities of the sitters and thousands of other paintings are missing information about the places or events depicted. Ahead of the launch of Art Detective a small number of paintings on Your Paintings have already been firmly re-attributed, notably one to Van Dyck at the Bowes Museum and one to Gainsborough at the Museum of St Albans. The launch of Art Detective promises more discoveries – both major and minor.

Art Detective has been built by the PCF using the support of public funding through the Arts Council’s Renaissance Strategic Support fund. It has been developed in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, together with representatives of Manchester Art Gallery, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate, Yale Center for British Art and a number of smaller institutions, the art trade and academia. An Expert Panel comprising Professor David Ekserdjian (Chairman), Alastair Laing, Professor Nigel Llewellyn and Dr Jill Lloyd oversees the appointment of the specialists who lead Art Detective’s special interest group online discussions. The website design and build was carried out by Keepthinking.

The principal outcome of Art Detective will be improved knowledge of the nation’s oil painting collection. Art Detective will also actively engage the public in the care and curatorship of public collections, and allow them to witness and participate in the processes of art historical research, connoisseurship and knowledge creation that lie behind the displays and exhibitions in our public museums and galleries.


Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, says, ‘Art Detective should provide a central exchange and a podium where expertise can be shared, problems can be aired, and discoveries can be publicised.’

Joyce Wilson, Area Director, London, Arts Council England, says, ‘Art Detective is a really interesting project and one that we are delighted to have been able to support through the Museum strategic support fund. Digital technology offers so much potential for arts and cultural organisations and this is a wonderful example of how it can be put into practice. Accessible to all, this website opens up the debate to a much wider national – and even international – audience, creating an excellent opportunity for us all to discover more about the collections that we hold.’

Emma Halford-Forbes, Museum Manager, The Black Watch Castle & Museum, says, ‘There are some real gems within our relatively small collection, and Art Detective is going to become an invaluable resource by giving us access to fantastic specialist knowledge.’

Dr Bendor Grosvenor, Art Historian and Dealer, says, ‘Art Detective will build on the outstanding achievements of the Public Catalogue Foundation, which has enabled us to discover more about our national collection than ever before. I was lucky enough to find lost works by Gainsborough and Van Dyck thanks to the PCF’s photographs, and now I hope Art Detective will allow others to make similar finds.’

Professor David Ekserdjian, PCF Trustee, says, ‘Most people presume that all the facts about who painted what and related questions must already have been established, but nothing could be further from the truth. Art Detective will make a huge contribution to our knowledge of the national collection.’

Professor Nick Pearce, Head of the School of Culture & Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, says, ‘The objectives of Art Detective to improve the knowledge and understanding of Britain’s art collections is a fundamental part of History of Art’s research and wider public engagement activity at the University of Glasgow. I am delighted that Glasgow has been a part of this exciting and ground-breaking development from its very beginning.’

Andrew Ellis, Director of the Public Catalogue Foundation, says, ‘The UK’s regional art collections face substantial challenges, particularly around collection research. Art Detective will provide much-needed assistance and, in all probability, result in some important discoveries.’