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A new approach to image retrieval is presented in the domain of museum and gallery image collections. Specialist algorithms, developed to address specific retrieval tasks, are combined with more conventional content and metadata retrieval approaches, and implemented within a distributed architecture to provide cross-collection searching and navigation in a seamless way. External systems can access the different collections using interoperability protocols and open standards, which were extended to accommodate content based as well as text based retrieval paradigms. After a brief overview of the complete system, we describe the novel design and evaluation of some of the specialist image analysis algorithms, including a method for image retrieval based on sub-image queries, retrievals based on very low quality images and retrieval using canvas crack patterns. We show how effective retrieval results can be achieved by real end-users consisting of major museums and galleries, accessing the distributed, but integrated, digital collections.