What's Hiding Underneath The Paint? Why + How to Hire a Forensic Art Analysis Firm

Oct 17, 2016

Art forgery makes for great headlines and even better stories. Publications from Vanity Fair to ARTnews covered the recent, high profile Knoedler Gallery scandal (which uncovered 40 counterfeit works allegedly by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and other major artists). Audiences eagerly consumed article after article about household name painters and the crafty conspirators who imitated them and sold the fakes. Reading about the scams is one thing, falling victim to a con quite another.

Thankfully, collectors can protect themselves. Forensic art analysts worldwide are using cutting edge technology to assess materials, technique, and condition in order to ultimately authenticate or deny works. Their services go beyond addressing possible fraudulence—companies can monitor conditions after a loan and provide other invaluable information (both qualitative and quantitative) about all kinds of art, from Chinese ceramics to old masters to contemporary sculpture. Ultimately, they can illuminate details of your artwork far beyond what any auction catalogue can offer and keep you informed as to how best protect such a valuable asset. We spoke to representatives at a couple of forensic analysis firms to get the details. Why do you need them? What are they actually doing when they examine a work? How can you tell if a Constable is really a Constable? Read on.

Cover Image Photo Credit: © SGS Art Services www.sgs.com/art

Why Hire a Forensic Analyst?

“There have been increasing risks to the value of art that include fakes, forgeries, misattributions, and unknown artists,” says Nica Rieppi, of US-based Art Analysis & Research (AA&R). “It’s estimated that 20 to 50 percent of artworks fall into one of these risk categories.” Her company gets involved before and after sales, but she’d love to get involved more on the front end—better to find out everything there is to know about a painting before you buy it, right?

If you’re on the selling end, AA&R’s services can add value as well. Rieppi notes a case in which she worked with both an auction house and a private collector. “We worked on a Constable painting that was sold at an auction house as a follower of Constable. It sold for around 5,200 dollars,” she recalls. AA&R imaged the painting with x-rays, which provided convincing evidence that the work was by Constable himself. The painting sold at auction for 5.2 million dollars. “That was a case where forensic analysis added value.” Value indeed.

Forensic analysts also prove helpful for institutions. Yan Walther, Managing Director of the Swiss-based global company SGS Art Services (the art department of SGS, a leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company, employing around 90,000 people worldwide), says that SGS works not only with collectors and auction houses but also with museums and archaeological departments. Recently, a major Swiss museum hired them to analyze the chemical composition of a deteriorating sculpture in order to help them conserve and restore it. SGS’s services extend to collectors with similar concerns about preserving their own artwork. SGS provides condition reports that especially aid collectors who loan their work. They guarantee consistency as well—a crucial element, as condition reporting can seem subjective. “SGS is the first company to have developed a global network of art conservators working with the same methodology, the same templates,” says Walther. “The software that we have created ensures consistency, traceability and confidentiality of the data.”

Forensic Art

© SGS Art Services www.sgs.com/art

What Questions Should You Ask?

You’re ready to contact a lab. What information do you need? Some thoughts from Rieppi and Walther:

  • Ask whether the lab can offer full confidentiality.
  • Regarding pricing, the cost of the analyst’s work should not be tied to the value of the work of art.
  • Find out as much as you can about previous clientele.
  • Which art testing techniques will the lab use? (See below for explanations of some analytical techniques)
  • Are the analytical processes described transparently and with accuracy? What kind of report will you receive?

Ensure that you’ll get information that you can both interpret and use. “The results should not just be presented as data, but placed in the commercial and historical context,” says Rieppi. “In the end, this report is for the client.”

Walther calls an SGS report “a technical passport for artworks, a kind of universal document.” It’s a detailed condition report that also includes comprehensive technical information such as chemical composition and high-resolution multispectral images that can be used to compare this artwork with other works from the same artist or to identify it in the future


What Do Forensic Analysts Do?

So you hire a forensic analysis company. You send a work to them (or they come to your home with their equipment), and then you receive a report. Certainly, you’ll have questions about what tools they’ve used and how they’ve extracted so much information. Walther and Rieppi provided some notes on typical forensic analysis technology:

  • XRF (X-ray fluorescence spectrometry) – non-invasive elemental analysis used to identify non-organic pigments, characterize alloys, etc.
  • Stereomicroscopy – the use of microscopes with two eyepieces that can provide three-dimensional imaging and depth perception
  • Infrared Reflectography – a technique used to look through paint layers, revealing underdrawings and changes in the paint layers
  • Raking light photography – taking images while shining light almost parallel to the paint surface, revealing textures, cracks, distortions, and how the artist used the paint

And how exactly do these techniques lead to guarantees of authenticity? The most common example of when to use XRF, according to Walther, is in analysis of white pigments. “The most commonly used white pigments are calcium carbonate, lead white, zinc white, and titanium white,” he says. “We know that, for example, lead white has been used since antiquity, but aggressively stopped being used at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century because it was toxic.” Painters began replacing lead with zinc white in the 1850s, and titanium white was finally commercialized in the 1920s. If a painting is supposed to be an Impressionist work from 1870, yet contains much titanium white, the anachronism will tip the company off that the work might be a fake.

Rieppi cites a case of a Kandinsky work in which infrared reflectography helped prove that a painting belonged to the artist’s oeuvre. The technology allowed AA&R to see an underpainting beneath the top paint layers on a portrait of his wife, Nina Kandinsky. “We were able to determine that the composition in fact related to an early sketchbook by the artist,” says Rieppi. She and her team helped prove that the work belonged in Kandinsky’s catalog raisonné, where it was subsequently published. The same technique helped SGS Art Services to identify the first version of a work by Adam van Breen in a private collection, while most art historians thought it was in a prestigious museum!

Walther also mentions special concerns with contemporary works. “Contemporary artists use a lot of mixed materials, mixed media. They experiment a lot,” he says. Consequently, some contemporary artworks are degrading quickly and nobody knows how the materials will evolve. SGS can help collectors determine the best storage or exhibition conditions in which to preserve the work.

Confidentiality is Key

Both Rieppi and Walther emphasized their company’s confidentiality measures, refusing to divulge any details of their private cases. Not ideal for writing articles on forensic analysis. Certainly ideal if you’re a collector or business seeking discretion. When you choose a company such as AA&R or SGS, you can be assured that your secrets, and those of your artwork, stay in the lab and with you.


Explore companies who provide forensic art analysis services here on The Clarion List, the leading online resource for discovering top rated art service companies: clarionlist.com

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