Art forgery is big business

ByMary E. Alvarez

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Man has been creating art since long before recorded history.

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Cave paintings and hand-print silhouettes have existed for many thousands of years. Cave paintings, bone carvings, marble statuary and painting on various media all were created to satisfy some inner need that we have to express ourselves.

Of course, some art is only created to make money, as the meme of the starving artist will attest.

Why do we, as a species, create art? It is a complex question to which I have no clear answer.

Clearly, there is some compulsion involved, but what the genesis of that compulsion is would be a question better posed to psychologists.

The fact is that we do create art and many of us who are incapable of even drawing a stick figure still admire these works that make our lives a little less dull. Once something is desirable, it becomes valuable.

Art is one of those things with little intrinsic value. Yet, some art pieces are “worth” hundreds of millions of dollars – at least that is what they are often sold for at auction. As far as I can tell, the only determinant for the value of art is what people are willing to pay for it.

Paintings that are sold for a few hundred dollars are later sold for millions after the artist dies or if there is some famous connection that can be linked to the art, such as being owned by a movie star. With this tremendous value, there is opportunity for fraud and the fake art industry is flourishing.

It is estimated that about 20 per cent of the art hanging in museums and galleries is fake. In fact, in some cases the number of fakes goes beyond a staggering 50 per cent.

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The duel between art forgers and the purchasers of art has become an arms race with each side adopting more sophisticated means to either fake or detect the fake. Each innovation stimulates the other side to come up with more technical means to improve their fakes or finding new ways to detect the fraud.

The first, and probably one of the most reliable ways to prove that an artwork is genuine, is through the provenance of the piece. Having a complete record of the artwork from the time it was created to the current owner through bills of sale, exhibit books and other documents that trace the journey of the artwork to the present owner is often decisive in authenticating the work.

However, it is not foolproof. Documents can be faked, people can lie and you must be careful when buying art. Examining a painting under a microscope and viewing a small sliver of paint can reveal the way the piece was created.

For instance, this method can tell if paint, such as a signature, was added years after the work was created. Technology such as mass spectrometry can tell us what materials were used to create the artwork.

If a painting has elements, such as titanium dioxide, which is a pure white, you know it was painted after 1921 when a striking white oil paint was available.  If the painting purports to be by da Vinci, but has titanium dioxide paint, you know it is a fake.

The same is true of X-ray technology, which will allow us to see what is under the paint. Often artists reused canvas to paint new pictures. If a painting is supposed to be old, but a newer painting is underneath, you know it is a fake.

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Another technique called infrared reflectography can give us a look at sketches and underdrawings that artists used to paint the picture. If this is absent or differs from known examples of an artist’s work, you know it is fake.

With millions of dollars at stake, it is no longer a simple matter of a talented artist creating art in the style of a famous artist, you have to be precise in the techniques and materials that you use to keep ahead of the technology. Each generation brings new techniques and technology to bear on authenticating artwork, but the duel between the forger and the gallery becomes more sophisticated.

Tim Philp has enjoyed science since he was old enough to read. Having worked in technical fields all his life, he shares his love of science with readers weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected].

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