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Fake detection in art

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The art experts

To determine, if necessary, the authenticity of a work, it is recommended to refer to a qualified expert. The latter can be an art historian specializing in a given period, an auctioneer, a gallery owner or an antique dealer working for institutions. However, the infallible expert does not exist, quite simply because the infallibility of judgment remains a goal, and cannot be a guarantee of result.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Lady(Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Lady, circa 1490, Tempera and oil on wood panel, 56.1 × 37.7 cm, Williamstown, Clark Art Institute. Painting copied by Icilio Federico Joni and later titled Portrait of a Woman as Saint Catherine, Siena, Chigi Saracini collection.)

The expert has an essential place in the detection of fakes and must work hand in hand with scientists who have analytical tools. It all starts with doubt: it is the eye of the beholder that suddenly worries. Indeed, the detection first appears by a disorder – in the aura – which animates the analytical judgment of the expert. The latter can arise at the time of the expertise which is based on the stylistic, iconographic or even technical aspect of the work. The expertise can detect a stylistic, iconographic or technical inconsistency. It is the eye of the expert facing the hand of the artist. The art historian is able to recognize this hand. The autography – a single hand making a canvas – is as important as the cosa mentale, which refers to the intellectual process the artist used to think about the work.

In the 19th century, Giovanni Morelli proposed a new method of attribution and authentication. This process is based on the attribution by stylistic comparison but it adds a nuance. According to him, it is necessary to analyze the details considered secondary, such as the hand or the positioning of the figures in a narrative scene to attribute a hand to the artist or authenticate a work. This is how the Portrait of a Lady painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1490 could be certified authentic compared to the copy made in the 20th century by Icilio Federico Joni, Portrait of a Woman as Saint Catherine. In the latter, the background landscape has been reproduced almost identically; the doubt fell on the features of the face of the young girl. They are the ones who, through comparisons, made it possible to differentiate between the copy and the original.

Scientific techniques

Sometimes the analysis by stylistic comparison is not enough, the doubts of the experts are subject to verification by a laboratory analysis of the work. Several devices allow it, they use the technique of grazing light, ultraviolet rays, X-rays, the electron microscope, and other tools, more and more elaborate: thus the physico-chemical analysis of substances can also bring important information and let you know if it was well used at that time. In some cases, we also focus on the analysis of elements related to the work, for example the frame, the stretcher of a canvas, the microscopic residues attached to varnishes, patinas (mineral dust, pollen), fingerprints, etc.

Since the 1920s and in this specific case, the X-ray has made it possible, for example, to detect copies because it penetrates to the heart of the pictorial layer and makes it possible to go as far as the preparatory drawing. The Christ of the Passion held in New York by the Metropolitan Museum of Art painted by a Flemish primitive in the 15th century features Christ, a woman at his side praying while holding a book against a 16th-century Renaissance background. The decor develops a checkerboard tiled floor that extends – thanks to a beautiful perspective – to a small wall. Below, to the right of this scene, is an angel carrying an antique pillar in the Doric register. Examination of the work by X-ray reveals that all the background decoration does not exist, as well as the angel carrying the Doric column: it is therefore a later addition.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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