Sleuthing SFU scientists sniff out fake art
Deep within Simon Fraser University’s chemistry department, science and art intersect to unravel the dark, but lucrative, underbelly of forgery.
Art forgery is a multi-million-dollar problem in the art world as galleries and collectors snap up what they think are legitimate pieces of work linked to famous painters and their circles.
While they look identical to the naked eye, peering at the fakes on a nano and micro scale can betray even the most seasoned con artist.
“In looking at forgeries, it really comes down to the fingerprinting, the chemistry behind it,” says chemistry professor Byron Gates. “The elements that compose the ink, frame, or canvas, and all the materials underneath will define their signature.”
Gates has partnered with fellow chemistry teaching professor Nabyl Merbouh to create a project that trains students to use forensic equipment, such as electron microscopy, energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, and X-ray florescence spectroscopy instruments, to investigate works of art down to the single molecule scale.
“We’re employing a range of really exciting techniques,” says Gates. “One of these tools is the same type of tool used by forensic investigators to diagnose gunpowder residue. This tool can provide a very sensitive measurement of the elemental composition of a sample using non-destructive methods.
“As you delve into the composition of the inks, there are certain elements that are banned now because they are toxic that you won’t find in paints today. But you would find them in historical paintings. Even though it looks the same, the fingerprint behind it – a shade of pink or a shade of white – it’s really not the same underneath.”
A trained analytical scientist will be able to quickly notice that the compounds that make up a paint sample don’t match those of certain eras and locations.
The metals used in frames, the materials that make up a canvas and even stray fabrics shed from an artist’s frock that get stuck in the paint can be dead giveaways of a forgery to the expert eye.
For Merbouh, the intersection of art and science has long been a passion.
“This project actually started a solid 20-25 years ago when I was a young student,” he says. “My first scientific advisor started the renovation laboratory in one of the museums in my French university. That’s how my love of analytical chemistry toward the arts started.”
Merbouh has tapped local artists to help provide students with era-accurate samples and modern recreations to help hone their analytical and investigative skills.
“We’re teaching students more than 20 different types of analytical methods and technologies by the time they’re finished with the curriculum at SFU,” says Merbouh. “What’s interesting for them is to actually look at the application of these in the real world. Why not the art world?”
From forgeries to forging a future
While a student’s goal is to identify the signs of a fake work of art, Merbouh and Gates said the skills and equipment used in the project would set them up for a vast spectrum of career opportunities as an analytical scientist, including art restoration, forensic investigation, quality control and agri-tech.
“The world is your oyster, in terms of jobs,” Gates says.
Undergraduate student Liam Johnson is currently helping Gates and Merbouh develop these techniques and contributing to related research that’s underway as part of the project.
Like most of us, Johnson says he doesn’t have the ability to spot a masterful forgery at first glance.
But that changes when he’s able to put it under the microscope.
“We’re taking these high-end instruments and saying, ‘Hey, the white in paints nowadays primarily arises from titanium oxide.’ But if you look at a lot of these older art pieces, they used lead-based paints to achieve a white hue,” he explains. “So if you find a piece of work where the paint contains titanium and you know the original artist wouldn’t have had access to that kind of paint, there’s something suspicious.”
Learning how to discern between a Malevich and a malicious knock-off has been a rewarding experience for Johnson.
“It’s been really cool,” says Johnson. “I’ve spent the past four years learning about all these analytical techniques and the scientific method, but now I’m actually implementing this learning myself and am involved in the research. It’s been an amazing experience and it’s definitely something I’m thankful I’ve gotten involved in.”