It has been launched by the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF), the group behind the Your Paintings website jointly created with the BBC to give free online access to more than 210,000 oil paintings held in public collections across the UK.
Art Detective, backed by various trade experts, such as art historian and dealer Bendor Grosvenor (from Philip Mould & Co) and Andre Zlattinger, senior director, Scottish Art at Christie's, aims to plug the gaps and identify sitters, places and events depicted in the paintings as well as reveal the unknown artists behind works.
The PCF say it addresses "the serious issue of insufficient specialist knowledge within public art collections. It is available to all 3000 or so collections that participate in Your Paintings. The vast majority of these participating collections - many of which are not museums - do not have fine art curators".
PCF editors can refer certain questions through the Art Detective section of Your Paintings to public discussions, attached to 'groups' with a specialist interest such as portraits or military subjects. It launches with 12 groups but this will expand.
Each group has a 'leader' appointed by an expert panel who is responsible for monitoring and directing discussions. The PCF then send their conclusions to the collection that owns the painting - but the collection has the final say on whether to accept that recommendation.
Dr Grosvenor was on the steering panel for the project and will also be the group leader for British 16th and 17th century portraiture. On his Art History News website, he said: "Of the over 200,000 pictures in the UK's collection, some one in five has either no attribution or an uncertain attribution. For thousands more we have other questions, such as where is the landscape, who is the sitter, and so on. Art Detective is designed to help solve some of these mysteries, and will prove a valuable support for institutions struggling to open up their collections to expertise in these days of increasing funding constraints."
The PCF have also announced that, subject to funding, Your Paintings could be followed by Your Sculptures, after a partnership was agreed with the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA). Along the same lines, it would create one comprehensive, searchable, digital database of sculpture in the UK from the 11th century onwards in public collections, freely available to the public.