Nov 5, 2019

Fake art objects can now be identified more easily

Radiocarbon art authentication reaches new level

Nobody knows how many of the expensive art objects currently circulating the art market are fake. Art forgery is not out of fashion, moreover modern forgers have at their disposal more sophisticated methods than ever before. But art authentication doesn’t stand still either. Researchers at the ETH university of Zurich introduced significant improvements on the radiocarbon dating method, claiming that the process of forgery identification has reached a new level.

Famous cases of art forgery

Johannes Vermeer ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’,1665

 Art forgeries date back more than two thousand years. And they are still in place and quite popular. Just some of the relatively recent stories… Dutch artist Han van Meegeren sold $60 million worth of fake Vermeer’s paintings to the Nazi leader Hermann Göring, the government of the Netherlands and many others. An infamous L.A. art dealer Tatiana Khan has sold a fake Picasso for $2 million. Art forger Robert Driessen created and sold over 200 fake statues of Alberto Giacometti, the world’s most expensive sculptor. Some of the fake sculptures were sold out of the Driessen’s car boot.

The most reliable method of art authentication today is radiocarbon dating, which was established in the 1940s. This method helps to detect forgery by establishing that the materials are not as old as they should be according to the date of painting’s completion.

Modern forgers are aware of radiocarbon testing and therefore use antique materials, which are hard, but not impossible, to get hold of. Han Van Meegeren, for instance, successfully re-used the paint from old canvases for his fake Vermeer’s paintings. 

Carbon dating method, improved

Laura Hendriks and her colleagues from the ETH Zurich have come up with an elegant solution to overcome this drawback of radiocarbon dating. It relies on measuring the presence of the radioactive carbon-14. Since one of its main characteristics is to decay away with time, old objects have a lesser proportion of carbon-14 than recent ones. Moreover, the deployment of nuclear weapons led to a dramatic increase in the carbon-14 concentration in the atmosphere, meaning that samples from this time can be dated with great precision.

According to ETH, Dr. Hendriks tested her method on a famous case: Robert Trotter’s forgery of “Sarah Honn”, a painting in American primitive folk style – which he signed “May 5, 1866 A.D.” At his subsequent trial, Trotter admitted to having painted the fake in 1985.

The ETH researchers analysed two microsamples from this painting and revealed that the oil used as binder contains an excess of 14C, which is characteristic of the 20th century. Even if forgers use old paint particles as a disguise the pigments are mixed within a binding agent, revealing the truth as they must be fresh for application.

Researchers hope that the new process will attract a great deal of interest in the art world, as it has the potential of validating the authenticity of famous paintings.

.ART Team
.ART Team
members are global citizens with interests ranging from art history to social justice. If we had an office cat we would have called it Basquiat.