Utilize Spectrophotometric Analysis to Catch a Thief in the Art World

Artists such as Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse, and van Gogh are renowned for their technical skill as well as their innovative use of color and pigments. Given the high value of their paintings, many of which are worth tens of millions of dollars, it is no surprise that an alternative market has developed alongside the selling of these paintings, namely the art forgery market. The FBI estimates that each year $6-8 billion of criminal income is generated from stolen and forged artwork. And as an example of the destructiveness of this ‘shadow industry,’ in 2013 an FBI investigation revealed two Manhattan galleries had spent more than $30 million dollars on sixty-three works of forged and useless art. Ultimately, if those who forge art have deceived the most careful collectors and organizations, how can galleries and art collectors better protect themselves?

spectrophotometric analysis
Sometimes imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Standardized techniques such as spectrophotometric analysis could decrease the circulation and incidence of forged work, is of utmost importance to the art world.
Image Source: Flickr user cangaroojack

Spectrophotometric analysis could greatly improve the detection of forged artwork

Individuals in the art world will often say the best protection against forgeries is to know everything about the art created by an artist. This includes his or her favored subject matters, brush strokes, color choice, and mediums. But as famed art forger Mark Landis told Gizmodo, technology has greatly improved the abilities of art forgers like himself to almost perfectly reproduce original artworks. In this climate, the common use of spectrophotometric analysis could greatly improve collectors’ ability to authenticate works. Spectrophotometric analysis enables collectors to determine very precise information about color and pigments or even a work’s texture, which can be used by collectors when an artwork is suspected to be a forgery.

Alternatively, art collectors could use spectrophotometric analysis to develop a “spectrophotometric fingerprint” for popular artists based on an analysis of colors, pigments, and the mediums popularly used in their work. When works under inspection differ from an artist’s fingerprint, more analyses could be done to determine the authenticity of the artwork. If such a system became widely available it could potentially reduce the number of forged artwork in circulation and also increase the likelihood that forgeries are quickly identified and forgers reprimanded, thus saving billions of dollars.

spectrophotometric analysis
If spectrophotometric analysis became standardized in the art world, forgery could become a thing of the past.
Image Source: Flickr user THOR

Why is spectrophotometric analysis so powerful for the art world?

Spectrophotometric analysis is particularly well suited to the task of inspecting artwork because spectrophotometers display the spectral graph of an object, providing detailed information about the exact nature (spectral graph) of an object’s color in addition to the tristimulus values (CIE L*a*b* numerical value). This is possible due to multiple sensors inside a spectrophotometer, which record the transmittance or reflectance of a specific wavelength of life thus providing information beyond what can be detected by the human eye or colorimeters.

Additionally, artists of course used the pigments available to them to make colors (based on the time period in which they worked and their geographical locations), whereas forgers are often forced to use modern pigments given that an artist’s original mixture can be difficult to obtain. Given the precision of spectrophotometric analysis, however, the exact spectral qualities of pigments can be determined and thus used to support or discredit accusations of forgery.

spectrophotometric analysis
Modern art pigments differ from older types and the differences can be used to identify when a painting was actually made using spectrophotometric analysis.
Image source: Flickr user Duncan Hull

Even the paper used to create a painting can be subjected to nondestructive analytic techniques using IR spectroscopy, a range available on modern spectrophotometers. Given that art forgers will often spray chemicals on paper in order to “age” an artwork, these chemical signatures and the presence of modern materials in paper, can provide important clues about the provenance of artistic works.

Invest in a spectrophotometer now to standardize the inspection of art

Well-trained curators and collectors can employ techniques honed over years of studying art to detect forgeries; however, this technique is limited by biology. The human eye interprets color after reflected light from various illuminations activates three retinal cones, resulting in the perception of color in the brain. Spectrophotometric analysis methods use a standard source of illumination to determine the tristimulus values (similar to what the human eye sees) as well as the exact spectral graphs. These spectral graphs are key in determining how the pigments, paper, paint, and gloss used in a piece of artwork for example, are similar or differ from standard techniques of the artist and others working during that time period. At HunterLab we have a range of benchtop and portable spectrophotometers than can be modified to serve your needs. To learn more how HunterLab spectrophotometers can be of use to you or your organization, please contact us today.

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