Elementary, Rembrandt: Reviewing The Scientist and the Forger by Dr. Jehane Ragai

The Scientist and the Forger by Dr. Jehane Ragai outlines the advanced forensic techniques being developed to help thwart art forgery.

If you’ve watched CSI or any of the other TV forensic procedurals, you know that science has jumped into the crime-solving pool with both feet. Advances in DNA analysis, latent-print recovery, forensic botany, and a host of other processes have helped clear decades-old cold cases, exonerate the wrongly accused, and catch villains who would’ve escaped just a few years ago. Your average big-city detective would now no more leave her criminalist at the station than she would her sidearm or badge.

Science has gone boho to help answer one of the thornier questions in art: is that painting real? This is the story Dr. Jehane Ragai tells us in The Scientist and the Forger: Insights into the Scientific Detection of Forgery in Paintings.

Art forgery has been a problem since Roman workshops started making knockoffs of Greek statues two thousand years ago. Until relatively recently, though, detecting fakes has been the sole province of art connoisseurs, who could make a piece worthless or priceless with an opinion—even if that opinion turned out to be wrong.

Art historians dig through an artist’s papers (if they left any) to find a mention of a painting or sculpture; specialists in the suspected artist’s work or artistic school use stylistic analysis to look for repeated motifs or tell-tale quirks. However, in the end, these people are, well, people, and subject to the same prejudices and baser motives as anyone else. Han van Meegeren’s fakes fooled the premier Vermeer scholars of his day, even though his works weren’t all that; the experts were so hot to add to Vermeer’s oeuvre that they overlooked the red flags all over the paintings.

Things have changed a bit since then. Dr. Ragai organizes her tour of the new tools by the base technology involved: microscopy, mass spectrometry, X-rays, infrared reflectography, dendrochronology, and a grab bag of digital techniques including multispectral imaging.

In many cases, what she describes fits Arthur C. Clarke’s third law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”).

  • Infrared reflectography can look beneath the paint to see the artist’s underdrawings, or the remains of the picture the forger scraped off to reuse the canvas.
  • Dendrochronology can identify not only the type of wood in a frame or panel, but how old it is and where it was harvested.
  • Multispectral imaging can isolate each layer of paint on a canvas, showing how the artist built the image and letting researchers see, for instance, the actual paint colors under bad restorations or degraded varnish.
  • Weave analysis can identify the age and general source of a painting’s canvas, and can even determine whether two paintings use canvas cut from a single bolt—a sure sign of forgery if paintings are attributed to artists who worked on different continents or in different decades.
  • Cross-section analysis takes a tiny core sample of the paint and identifies the chemical composition of each layer of paint. It can even reveal the thin layer of dust between a painting’s surface and the forged signature added later.

The author illustrates many of these techniques with case studies that explain not only the results, but how scientists and art experts used those results.

As powerful as these tools are, they’re not all in common use yet. Some require skilled operators that are in short supply. Others are very expensive and out of the reach of all but a few university labs or the largest art museums. Also, many of these tools are still accepted by the art industry and in case law about as well as fingerprint analysis was at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the chapters describes how, in the case of a supposed Boris Kustodiev Odalisque, battling experts managed to blow enough smoke around the technical findings to get a civil judge to disregard them in his verdict. There are still no universal standards of practice or codes of ethics in the field of technical art analysis, which leaves the way open for interested owners or gallerists to shop for the lab results they want to see.

This is an academic book; don’t expect character development or plot twists. However, Dr. Ragai is a clear and engaging writer. She takes a subject that could be a cure for insomnia and makes it interesting and, crucially, easy for laypeople to understand. The book’s full of illustrations, including reproductions of the paintings that star in the case studies, something not all art books do. There’s also a comprehensive glossary, wide-ranging sources noted at the end of each chapter, and an index that’s actually useful (something missing in many of the art-crime books I’ve read).

Whether you’re marking time until CSI: National Gallery comes along, or you need the latest scoop on what not to do while you’re producing your next counterfeit Picasso, you need this book. But, it’s also a good pick if you’re into art crime, forensic science, or just seeing scientists doing the damnedest things.

 

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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. In addition to his international thriller Doha 12 and his near-future thriller South, he’s writing an art crime-centric series of mysteries. His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.

Comments

  1. Todd Henson

    This is a fascinating topic. I think I’d enjoy this book and hope to pick up a copy. Thanks for the review!

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