Handle with care…thoughts on science’s role in combating art crime

Posted on: March 4, 2016 by

Last week I was musing on the way in which the same themes seem to pervade many different areas of the shady world of art crime. Continuing along this track, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the role technology is increasingly playing here, from revealing forgeries to assessing damage from looting.

While scientific analysis of paintings and other artefacts is certainly nothing new, the field has expanded hugely and become increasingly sophisticated over the past few years. Various specialised photographic and X-ray techniques are now de rigeur in forgery cases of any value or significance. Dendrochronology can tell us the age of wood-based artworks within a year of accuracy and mass spectrometry is being employed with increasing regularity to identify pigments in paintings. It was the use of the ‘wrong’ pigment which led to the demise of infamous forger Wolfgang Beltracchi – his downfall, in the end, was ‘titanium white’ which hadn’t existed on the date claimed for one of his forgeries.

Science played a key part in detecting the forgeries in the ongoing Knoedler case too. In the recent trial, it emerged that scientific analyses revealed a traced signature, intentional alteration and the reuse of old materials as well as use of anachronistic pigments.

'The Temptation of St Anthony' one of the paintings formerly attributed to Bosch withdrawn from recent exhibition

‘The Temptation of St Anthony’ one of the paintings formerly attributed to Bosch withdrawn from recent exhibition

Uncertainties over attribution outside of the courtroom also benefit from the application of cutting-edge techniques. Infrared reflectography and ultrahigh-resolution digital macro photography were used to reassess two paintings formerly attributed to Hieronymus Bosch resulting in their withdrawal from a major exhibition of the artist’s work which opened in the Netherlands last month.

Moving to an entirely different context, new technologies are facilitating more detailed and timely assessment of damage to cultural property in war zones. Drones are being used to help archaeologists monitor site destruction, identifying rates, locations and changing patterns of looting activity over time.

Advances in technology are also playing a crucial – if at times controversial – role in the analysis of human remains. You may recall the much-reported case of the Kennewick Man which involved a protracted battle between the scientists desperate to study the c. 9000 year old human remains and the Native American groups horrified that their ancestor was to be treated like a specimen. The use of DNA analysis was also crucial in the recent and much-hyped Richard III case. None of this would have been possible as little as a decade or so ago.

So what does all this mean for the world of art and antiquities and the laws that protect them? Does science now reign supreme?

Many in the art world view such a notion with a healthy scepticism. Technology per se can only get us so far. Without the context provided by other experts – art historians, curators, connoisseurs, valuers, archaeologists, lawyers – the answers provided by science are at best, partial and at worst, potentially unhelpful and misleading. Indeed, in the case of the Kennewick Man, the initial conclusions of the scientific community were eventually proved wrong. DNA tests finally confirmed the claims of one of the native groups who had been calling for a fitting and proper burial of their ancestor for over nineteen years.

Courts deciding these kinds of cases, then, are well advised not to treat the conclusions of the scientists as the final word. Scientific determinations change, and can only ever be one – among many – factors determining the resolution of these complex and often emotionally charged disputes.

Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons