Finding forgeries

How do we use science to find forgeries?
22 January 2019

Interview with 

Jeffrey Taylor, New York Art Forensics Institute


What happens when an old painting isn’t quite what it appears to be. As long as there has been art, there have been people willing to forge it. So how can science help weed out the Masterpieces from the Master Fakes? To find out, Adam Murphy spoke to Jeffrey Taylor, from the New York Art Forensics Institute...

Jeffrey - We begin looking at it with a lot of different types of light. So we're looking at it with normal light (visible light) and examining it very closely with microscopes, and then we move to the ultraviolet spectrum, and then we move to the infrared spectrum and we use that to see kind of through the painting and possibly to notice things like under drawing or other things underneath the paint layer.

Adam - So you could find something underneath that's absolutely not what you would expect from that artist.

Jeffrey - Yes you could. And of course, that's a common feature of a forgery; is that good forgeries will use - we have kind of a crude term for it: a donor painting, and that means a painting that they've picked up at a flea market and usually scraped down some of the paint, sometimes just painted right over it, but that will give them a good period canvas stretcher so all those parts of the painting will seem old and convincing. And so to look underneath and to perhaps see an earlier painting that would be entirely inconsistent - that'll be a clue right there!

Adam - And when you've done that, what would be the next step to move into?

Jeffrey - What we're looking at in general when we're doing an art forensics analysis, is we're particularly looking at the pigments and trying to come up with a date that this artwork could have been made. And we really are using a knowledge of the history of pigments to make that evaluation. And one of the driving forces in the evolution and development of new pigments is just moving away from toxicity. And that particularly is the case with whites, so lead white was the dominant white for painters really up until the 19th century and then they invented new ones in the 19th century that weren't so toxic based in barium and zinc but they weren't as good either. And then the really key invention is the development of titanium white, titanium dioxide, which we use a date of 1921 as its introduction. And that's really one of our most crucial dates is looking at whether an artwork contains titanium because that will very often help us solve a lot of cases. Latter day forgeries, things made in the 50s and 60s and 70s and more recently, but purporting to be from the early 20th century; we can often rule them out by the presence of titanium.

Adam - So let's say a Vermeer, then that wouldn't ever have titanium white in it so if it is there, you know it's a forgery.

Jeffrey - No it wouldn't. Yeah. I mean in Vermeer, the paintings of his period the 17th century, those are really simple. I mean, when we're looking at a potentially Rembrandt or potentially Van Dyck, it's a really small bunch of pigments that those artists had. It's amazing what great paintings they had. I mean, they're like working with like six or seven pigments and that's all they have. It just gets much harder as time goes by and you're looking at a painting that purports to be from a much more recent period.

Adam - How many forgeries do you get compared to genuine articles?

Jeffrey - It's sad. It's around, I would say 80 to 90 percent of what we study is not what the client was hoping it would be. And that can be many different variations, I mean, a forgery is where there's a clear intent to deceive. So usually that means a signature by a famous artist and the painting is not. And it was clearly produced with the intention of deceiving someone. We also just have fakes: things that weren't necessarily malicious, they've just been misattributed. And we have a lot of those cases. Or we might be looking at a 17th century painting and the client was really hoping it was by a very famous master, and it turns out that we determined it really is a 17th century painting but it's most likely by a lesser master working in the circle of that artist. So there's many different ways that an artwork can be less than authentic but yeah 80 to 90 percent of the time, it's kind of bad news.


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