To Detect Fakes, Art Meets Science

Steve Remich/Wall Street Journal

As the recently settled Knoedler & Co. art-forgery lawsuit made clear, even the trained eyes of art connoisseurs can have their blind spots.

So some in the art market are turning to science for added reassurance, subjecting objects to tests more commonly associated with crime procedurals.

Still largely the province of laboratories at large museums and universities, and of a handful of consultants trained in that world, such reviews aren’t a magic bullet for authentication, experts say. But they can flag inconsistencies that signal a forgery.

And as collectors plunk down record sums for art, some newer players are entering the field.

Last fall a fledgling art-forensics laboratory at State University of New York’s Purchase College began testing works for the art trade.

There are also networks of individuals such as Kenneth Smith, an analytical chemist based in Illinois, who specialize in slices of the work. “My focus is entirely materials-oriented,” said Dr. Smith, who enlists other consultants for tasks such as carbon-dating or provenance research.

“There is clearly a need as artwork becomes more and more of a commodity that is bought and sold,” said Pamela Hatchfield, president of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and the head of objects conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Still, she said, “It’s not a matter of just having one or two pieces of equipment or a black light.”

The work is complex. It requires expertise in both chemistry and art history, along with an understanding of how art and artifacts are made. Some in the art world worry that newcomers or those who lack training in art conservation could misinterpret results, missing clues that indicate a forgery or incorrectly identifying other works as fake.

With the counterfeits sold by the Knoedler gallery, tests of two supposed Robert Motherwell paintings dated 1953 and 1955 showed indications that an electric sander had been used on both surfaces—a technique the artist wasn’t known to have employed. The analysis, conducted in 2008 by Massachusetts-based Orion Analytical LLC, one of the most prominent firms involved in such work, also detected pigments that weren’t developed until the 1960s.

The paintings turned out to be among more than 30 counterfeit works Knoedler sold that were created by a man living in Queens, supplied by a Long Island art dealer who has since pleaded guilty to criminal charges. The gallery has settled a handful of lawsuits over the sales.

“When science began to show that the experts were often wrong, that was really terrifying,” said Jeff Taylor, an assistant professor of arts management at Purchase College who co-founded the lab there.

The facility, launched in 2014, grew out of a popular Chemistry in the Arts course taught jointly by Stephen Cooke, an associate professor of chemistry, and Dr. Taylor, an art appraiser and historian who studies the art market and has an art-advisory business.

Dr. Taylor said he has supervised conservators as an art adviser, and when he worked in the art-shipping business in Hungary. He also consulted for an art-forensics lab in Budapest, he said.

Last summer Drs. Taylor and Cooke brought in a forensic scientist, Thiago Piwowarczyk, who has his own consulting firm.

The lab, which Dr. Taylor said is “still really nascent,” now has about $400,000 worth of testing equipment at its disposal. It offers pro bono services to public art collections such as the Hispanic Society of America, helping conservators document the materials of objects in their collection.

Museum conservators and those in private practice have long used ultraviolet light, microscopes and X-radiography to examine objects and guide restoration efforts. Newer tools include hand-held X-ray fluorescence analyzers, infrared spectroscopy and techniques that can identify materials down to the molecular level.

By themselves, experts say, such tests are rarely enough to establish authenticity. That typically also requires a detailed stylistic analysis, as well as documents establishing a work’s ownership history.

“The tests are almost never going to prove a positive [attribution],” said Sharon Flescher, an art historian and executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit that conducts authentication research, among other activities. While forensic tools have improved dramatically over the decades, Dr. Flescher said, “It’s not as cut and dried as people think.”

For example, the presence of titanium in a painting attributed to a 19th-century artist could indicate the use of titanium white, a pigment developed in the early 20th century. But titanium also naturally occurs in clay used since antiquity to create yellow ochres and red umbers, said Jennifer Mass, an adjunct associate professor of art conservation at the University of Delaware.

“There are people who have knowledge of chemistry, but that doesn’t give them the necessary context to interpret this type of data,” said Dr. Mass, who has worked in the field since 1995 and also has a consulting firm, Scientific Analysis of Fine Art LLC.

Work relating to art authentication can be contentious. Experts sometimes come to different conclusions, and may be drawn into litigation as witnesses.

For Orion founder James Martin, his involvement as an expert in the Knoedler case resulted in “a lot of subpoenas…and a lot of sleepless nights,” he said in court earlier this month.

To insulate Purchase College from liability, Dr. Taylor said the lab’s work for commercial clients gets billed either to his firm or to that of Mr. Piwowarczyk.

Asked whether the work presents any conflicts of interest, given his work as an appraiser, Dr. Taylor said the intent was to provide an affordable service that also has an educational mission. “I am trying to help create good knowledge,” he said.

Written by Jennifer Smith of The Wall Street Journal

(Source: The Wall Street Journal)


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