The War on Forgery: An Exploration into Current Technologies Used to Catch Art Fraud

By: Zachary Finn

The field of art authentication has been revolutionized by several new technologies designed to spot fake art. Supposedly, up to fifty percent of all artworks in the market are fake, forged, or misattributed. Forgery is the act of making, exploiting, selling, and peddling fake art. This practice has become one of the most lucrative businesses in the world. According to the US Department of Justice and UNESCO, the crime of art forgery and laundering has been the third highest-grossing criminal commerce in the world over the last 40 years. This is just behind drugs and weapons. As technology has developed over the years, so has a plethora of developments and methods to detect fake and forged art. Many of the new technologies have successfully infiltrated the art crime domain, but they also raise legal implications to consider. 

One of the most encouraging is spectroscopy, which analyzes the chemical composition of the artwork and compares it to the known composition of genuine works from the same period. Spectroscopists test to identify whether certain specific elements and molecules are present in the pigment used to create works of art. For example, scientists use Mass Spectrometry to identify whether lead is present in certain artworks. Throughout early art history, lead was popularly used in paintings. Ancient paintings are identifiable through this technology because lead is now extremely rare and difficult to come by. After discovering the toxic qualities of lead, the art scene was quick to remove lead from its paint belt. Therefore, using spectrometry technology, an individual can spot a forged or fake painting by testing to see the presence of lead or other comparable elements and molecules. If a Da Vinci is without lead, it is almost certainly a fake. Mass spectrometry requires samples from an artwork, which may cause damage. This can create legal disputes over the damage and restoration of the artwork, especially since most of the artwork being tested has historical and cultural significance.

Similar to spectrometry, X-ray fluorescence is another technology that analyzes the elemental composition of art. With this technology, X-rays analyze shine beams on an artwork, which causes atoms in the pigments to emanate ancillary X-rays These rays identify the specific elements, where then experts can determine if they are consistent with materials used in works from the same period. Forgers practice and develop methods of painting over less valuable but still old artworks to create a more valuable fake art. The advantage of using X-ray fluorescence is that it penetrates through layers of paint. This offers scientists and art historians the capability to examine the underlying painting of an artwork. Like mass spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence raises legal considerations because it potentially damages an artwork in question. On top of this, like most of these technologies, a legal consideration regarding admissibility for evidential purposes emerges. Courts and juries will have to weigh the credibility of experts and these technologies. 

Continuing with scientific technology, Multispectral Imaging uses expert cameras to capture images of an art piece in different wavelengths of light. This allows the examiners to identify inconsistencies that can be indicative of forgery. With multispectral imaging, cameras use different imaging techniques, including ultraviolet and infrared light. UV imaging reveals polishes, touch-ups, and overpainting. Infrared exposes details such as underlying paint jobs. A big advantage of this tool is that it is a non-invasive process so that it does not alter an art’s composition. Delicate and rare artworks may be susceptible to damage by other types of testing, so therefore this technology can be most useful in the war against art forgery. However, this technology also leads to legal questions involving expert opinions and declarations as imaging results are still open to interpretation, and different experts may reach different results as to conclusions of an art’s composition.

In the “most tech-savvy” way to detect forgery, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning algorithms analyze large databases of both genuine and fake art. The AI and machines extract patterns and features that distinguish real and fake art from one another. In a research development by Case Western Reserve University, this technology “combines data from the precise, three-dimensional mapping of a painting’s surface with analysis through artificial intelligence — a computer system based on the human brain and nervous system that can learn to identify and compare patterns.” In one study, AI and machine learning were able to spot forged art with greater than 95% accuracy. A key advantage of using AI and machine learning in art forgery is that large amounts of data can be analyzed and evaluated quickly and efficiently. This expedites spotting potential forgeries and works more accurately and efficiently compared to other methods. However, legal issues involving privacy arise as AI sift through large amounts of datasets that can possibly contain private or unconsented information. As technology evolves, AI algorithms and machine learning can be updated and revised to improve accuracy and proficiency.

The art world has been plagued with crimes of forgery and faking artworks for centuries, but with new technologies such as spectroscopy, X-rays, multispectral imaging, AI, and machine learning, the ability to detect counterfeit art has revolutionized the way experts fight this war against forgery. It will be exciting to see what other technologies emerge in the upcoming years, as well as what new paintings are discovered to be just fake copies.

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