Art Authentication and the Role of Science

Art Authentication With Help of Scientific Analysis

Art authentication can be an exhilarating and frustrating process for an art collector.  Varying opinions of experts and clues found in the history of the piece or in searching for similar works can lead to an interesting and sometimes long journey, but science can offer important information which can help make decisions about the value of further research, the history of the piece, and insight into the techniques used to create it.

Many articles have been written about the large number of works of art that are attributed to famous artists but have questionable provenance. This may be due to loss of records related to theft or war, a simple lack of thorough documentation, or natural disasters such as fire or flood. When artwork is bought or sold, a buyer may request authentication of a painting or object from an expert prior to the sale because of  minimal provenance.  This examination can provide reassurance to both parties that the artwork is what both believe it to be.  But the examination of a work can be subjective depending on the experience of an expert, the comparable works that are available for comparison, and the concern of the expert regarding potential litigation in the future over their opinion.

A scientific analysis can help the process in a number of ways.  The first would be in identifying the materials used by the artist.  if materials are found that are anachronistic (improper for the time of the creation of the artwork) then a conclusion that the artwork may be a copy or an alteration can be reached quickly.  If the materials are consistent with the date of the artwork or the period of an artist’s career, then the possibility of the artwork being a copy or forgery is diminished.  A second aid that a scientific analysis can provide is in imaging the artwork.  For a painting, collecting X-ray images can reveal changes in a painting that would not be present in a copy or forgery.  The canvas or support can be evaluated more fully as well.  A third aid in art authentication that a scientific analysis can provide is a review of known materials used by an artist and possible a comparative study of materials from a well documented and already authenticated work.  While an artist may have produced great works and lesser works during a period, the palette used may have been consistent independent of technique which can tie two works together.  A fourth and very important aspect of scientific analysis is its reproducibilty.  The physical properties of a pigment or medium can be measured to give a spectrum using infrared, Raman, X-ray fluorescence, or other type of analysis.  This data can be reproduced by a second scientist using comparable instrumentation.  This allows for a more accurate and quantitative comparison of results from more than one scientific analysis, in relation to multiple opinions from experts with different years of experience or different scholarly paths in their careers.

Reproducibility of scientific analysis also provides a means for verifying that a piece of artwork is the same one that had been examined previously. In some cases works of art are found or recovered and need to be examined to redetermine their authenticity. In situations where works are found there will typically not be the supporting historical information about the piece so that the scientific and stylistic analyses are critical. When a painting or object is studied with the goal of authenticating the work, scientific analysis can reveal the identities of materials that impact that final conclusion on authenticity and the opinions of art scholars by providing more information for evaluation.

Most historic materials and many modern materials have been studied and information about the first introduction, period of use, and methods of preparation are available.  The first step in the scientific analysis is an accurate characterization of materials such as pigments, media, supports, and binders.  Once the components of a work of art have been identified, research of data for these materials can be performed and the results evaluated in light of the information known or suggested for a work of art, the period and the artist. The accurate identification of the materials in a work of art increases confidence in an authentication analysis with objective chemical data and corresponding historic data.  Microscopic examination of paint cross sections can reveal clues to the technique used by the artist, which is information that aids stylistic evaluation of a work of art. Chemical analysis reveals identity and composition of historic and modern pigments and dyes.  Medium analysis (oil, waxes, tempera, proteins, gums, synthetics) also reveals the artist’s technique and identification of synthetic materials can provide an estimated date of creation. When combined with historical research and stylistic analysis; scientific examination provides an important key to the story of an object.  Each of these areas alone cannot tell the whole story of an object, but the combination is powerful. At the intersection of these three areas of research is the fullest story about an object.

art authentication If you are an art collector that has an interesting piece that you are curious to learn more about, or if you feel you may have found a hidden treasure, or if you work in a gallery and need additional information about a piece to help tell its full story, or if you invest in art and simply want to have all the facts available before acquiring a piece; please give us a call or send an e-mail so we can discuss what role a scientific analysis can have for you and your art authentication research.