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True Colors: Is A Painting Real Or Is It A Forgery? Technology Has Made It Easier To Spot Fakes


December 20, 2009

One of the more unusual features of "Rembrandt's People," the exhibition running at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, is a series of paintings by people who aren't actually Rembrandt.

These pieces just look a lot like Rembrandt's work. The point, says the Atheneum's chief conservator, Stephen Kornhauser, is to show how influential the Dutch painter was and how tricky it can be for art collectors to tell fakes from the real deal.

That's a dilemma museum officials know all too well. In the middle of the last century, the Atheneum acquired two "Rembrandts" that were later revealed to be painted by other artists.

Fortunately for art collectors, technology has made it easier to spot the fakes, but forgers are a wily lot.

"You need a network of people you can rely on," Kornhauser says.

One of the people he relies on the most is Henry DePhillips, an art conservation scientist at Trinity College. The two met when Kornhauser was subbing in DePhillips' weekly tennis doubles match in the 1980s. At the time, questions had arisen about the authenticity of one of the Atheneum's Vincent Van Gogh paintings. Kornhauser says he never questioned the painting's authenticity but needed proof. He asked DePhillips if he could look at some paint samples from the Van Gogh in question.

DePhillips' specialty at the time was studying proteins, but he wasn't fazed by the request. "The materials, they're all chemicals, so for me it was natural," he says. "What I had to learn was the art. That I did not have at all."

He was a little taken aback by how small the paint samples given to him were, but as Kornhauser explained, you chip off as little as you can when you're talking about a $3 million work of art. DePhillips got to work, and his analysis found that the pigments' chemical make-up was consistent with the materials that Van Gogh would have used. The early success shifted DePhillips' career, and for the last 22 years, the science of art has been his specialty.

His work prevented the Atheneum from purchasing a painting, supposedly by French painter James Tissot, when DePhillips detected traces of titanium dioxide in the paint. Titanium dioxide didn't show up in pigments until the 1920s, and Tissot died in 1902.

"So [Kornhauser] took it back to the dealer, who said, 'Ohh, you know, I thought maybe there was something wrong with this'."

The field of conservation science is still young. It used to be that conservation efforts were largely the work of the artists, since they were the ones who knew the material best. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that scientific principles were applied to conservation.

When he entered the field, DePhillips says, there weren't many other conservation scientists. There's more interest in it now, and as DePhillips tells it, the forgery detectors can use all the help they can get. An FBI agent once told him that about 25 percent of all artwork in museums are forgeries. And for private collectors, the estimate is 40 percent.

It's obviously a disappointment for a museum to learn that one of its works is a fake, but it can be financially disastrous for a private collector. Not surprisingly, DePhillips says, private collectors rarely volunteer to have their artwork analyzed.

Art forgery is a $6 billiona-year business, so the crooks have a lot motivating them.

"Forgeries are getting better, but fortunately, our technology is also getting better, so we stay one step ahead of them," DePhillips says. "But these guys are very, very clever."

So clever that sometimes the difference between real and fake can be detected only with state-of-the-art equipment. Such was the case when a conservator at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London contacted DePhillips about a 15th-century Antonio Rossellino relief painting whose authenticity was questioned. Rossellinos often are suspect because of a 19th-century forger who flooded the market with hundreds of fake Rossellinos. Thanks to his expertise and equipment (including a $125,000 electron microscope), DePhilips detected a small but important detail: There was no trace of silicon in the yellow paint chip sampled from the work.

Aha! That means it was a pigment known as Lead-Tin Yellow Type 1, used in the 15th century but not available during the forgerer's life. He passed his findings onto this friend, who in turn used them to eliminate any doubt about the work.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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