Meet The Art Sleuths Using Science To Find Frauds

17:10 minutes

abstract art in a collage style artwork, includes a simply drawn face. a disembodied sketched arm and hand hold a piece of paper with two eyes on it, and it holds it front of the face. other abstract elements include what looks like water droplets angled towards the face
Credit: Shutterstock

At the end of last year, a big case was decided in the world of art crime. Qatari Sheikh Hamad al Thani won a case against his former art dealer, after nearly $5 million dollars worth of purchased ancient artifacts were all determined to be fake. Among the artifacts was a Hari Hara sandstone statue purported to be from 7th century Vietnam. In reality, the piece was made in 2013.

Art experts say forged antiquities are extremely common in museums and private art collections: Former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas Hoving estimated 40% of artworks for sale at any given time were fake. 

The task of determining what art is real and what art is fake falls to scientists, who use tools like X-rays and carbon dating to get accurate readings of time and place of origin for artifacts. Joining guest host Kathleen Davis to talk about this are Erin Thompson, art crime professor at the City University of New York, and Patrick Degryse, professor of archeometry at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. 

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Segment Transcript

MADDIE SOFIA: This is Science Friday. I’m Maddie Sofia.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m Kathleen Davis. At the end of last year, a big case got decided in the world of art crime. A Qatari Sheikh, who bought $5 million worth of ancient artifacts, found out they were all fake, and that is after he paid for them. The Sheikh successfully sued the art dealer for negligence. This whole case begs the question, how common are forged antiquities, and how is fake art authenticated?

To answer those questions, we turn to science and my guests. Erin Thompson is an art crime professor at the City University of New York based in New York City, and Patrick Degryse is a professor of archeometry at the Catholic University of Leuven in Leuven, Belgium. Welcome both of you to Science Friday.

ERIN THOMPSON: Thank you for having us.

PATRICK DEGRYSE: Great to be here, thank you.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So Erin, walk me through some of the details about what happened in this case. What kind of art was involved here?

ERIN THOMPSON: So Sheikh Hamad decided that he wanted to expand his already extensive art collection. He was introduced by a relative to the dealer John Ashkenazy, and he told him, I want to buy ancient art that is suitable for lending to museums. And Ashkenazy said, great, I’ve got just the things.

He ended up buying seven objects. My favorite is a serpent bracelet that looks like something Cleopatra would have worn. The rest were sculptures from ancient Cambodia, ancient Gandhara, and it turns out that not a single one of them was authentic, even though he had paid nearly $5 million.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So Patrick, I know some of the details are sparse on this case, but can you walk me through broadly what kind of methods can be used to determine the authenticity of art?

PATRICK DEGRYSE: Well, you’d be looking for anachronisms, basically. You’d be looking at the technology used to make these objects, which should correspond to a certain geographical frame or time frame, what is normal for that time period to get your objects made in a certain fashion. And so if you analyze them and you find details in its makeup or its chemistry that do not correspond to that specific technology, the object would be wrong for that time period, for that geographical frame, and so you would be asking serious questions on how that happened for this particular object.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: How long might it take, from start to finish, to determine the authenticity of a piece of art?

PATRICK DEGRYSE: It will often be a debate, so an analysis as such does not take too much time. It’s a matter of days, say, to get your basic data. But then the discussion will start whether what your data are telling you. Is this normal? Is this a right analysis, a right composition for an object?

And if it’s wrong, you will often start a debate on, yes, but what was exactly analyzed. Could it not be that this is a later edition or a conservation of an object? So you try to justify the composition that is not consistent with a certain time period or a certain region. And so how long does it take? Well, as long as you can drag the debate you can discuss over a composition.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Is there a risk of damaging potentially real art and artifacts by doing these tests to determine authenticity?

PATRICK DEGRYSE: Yes. Unfortunately, there is. There are techniques that are entirely noninvasive, so where you analyze an object hardly without touching it, but most techniques that will give you very, very good results, accurate and precise as is termed in the analytical world, then you will often need a sample, a little piece that is taken from the object. And so that is damage to the object. So yes, there is a risk in analyzing objects.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And does that potentially change the value of this artifact?

ERIN THOMPSON: It’s a balance, again. If you can prove by analyses or at least suggest that it is consistent with this time period or this origin, which gives it an immense value, then it’s a good thing to have that analysis. We should realize, however, that most of these art objects or antiques are not analyzed. Often, this is very rarely done. It is often only done when there is already debate on an object, when an object is deemed odd.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I would think that most sellers of questionable antiquities don’t ask for test not because they’re worried about damaging the object physically but because they’re worried about damaging their optimistic assessment of how old the object is. So Erin, this brings me to my next question. Broadly speaking, how big of a problem are forged antiquities?

ERIN THOMPSON: Well, first, I want to say that this case is so fascinating because the obviousness of the forgery for one of the pieces was an unfired clay head, supposedly from the fifth century– and that means it was unbaked, just raw clay. Imagine if your kid brings home a plado a sculpture from preschool, and then it survives for the next couple of millennia.

No, that’s not going to happen. And as soon as the first conservation scientist laid eyes on it through a microscope, she saw a piece of plastic protruding from the cheek. That’s a real bad sign. But forgeries are such a problem because there are so few incentives for anyone to ever definitively say this object is a fake.

A dealer doesn’t make money if they can’t sell objects, if they have to say it’s a fake. A collector doesn’t want to hear that they paid a lot of money for something. So this case is so rare of an instance, of a collector coming out and saying, I was fooled, and I want my money back. Forgeries have always been a problem, especially of beautiful ancient art.

We’ve been faking ancient Greek art since the ancient Romans wanted to buy it. It just has kept going over the centuries, and it’s no surprise that, today, when there’s a lot of people with a lot of money, who have a lot of coffee tables to fill, that there’s going to be forgeries produced for this market.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Is it possible that there are fakes in our museums that we go to and love to visit?

ERIN THOMPSON: Oh, 100%. I always joke that there are things in the Metropolitan Museum that I will eat if they’re authentic because I don’t think they are.


ERIN THOMPSON: Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum, wrote a great book about forgeries in the art world in which he estimated that, in museum collections, on the art market, among all of the art he’d ever seen, he thought that about 40% was fake.


PATRICK DEGRYSE: Especially in the time that these museums were acquiring their collections, they were paying for artifacts and quite significant amounts, and we’re talking, say, 100 years ago. Some objects were bought through excavations. But of course, as these amounts were paid and private collectors collected next to museums, a lot of money went around in this world and so there was an incentive to start forging a certain type of object.

So museums either bought objects themselves or acquired objects through these private collectors donating their collections to museums. So yes, there was an opportunity there to make your object and get a bit of profit out of it.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Speaking of this, what methods are actually used by forgers to make their forgeries look convincing?

PATRICK DEGRYSE: I think they are very talented people. They often copy ancient techniques, and so you would start with taking the original material or mixture of materials, imitating that. And then they are very talented artists. Whether it is a painting, or a sculpture, or another artifact, they can make really good art that looks exactly like the thing it’s supposed to be the ancient thing that it’s supposed to be.

So they would copy techniques and materials from the original and then try to make it as convincing as possible. And then it is up to the museum, or the collector, or the person analyzing the object to find the flaw, to find the anachronism, the one thing that is wrong with that composition. Depending on the material that you use, stone would be the material that would be easiest to forge, in a sense, because you don’t alter much to the composition.

If you take a stone similar to the ancient material, the ancient origin quarry, and it’s still available, it’s very hard to tell. You only have the hand of the artist to discriminate between the original and the forgery. The more complicated a material becomes, where you have to mix raw materials and melt them and change them, again, then it becomes easier to detect flaws in a technology or a composition. But in terms of artistry, in terms of being talented artists, I think forgers are often very talented people.

ERIN THOMPSON: Gold is also a forgery material of choice because you can just measure the appropriate purity of the gold, what additions to the metal were in various ancient cultures, and it doesn’t tarnish. So you can have a perfectly shiny piece of gold from antiquity. Recently, someone 3D printed an ancient Roman ring, gilded that, and then sold it at auction. And it was only because someone noticed, wait, this doesn’t weigh quite as much as an actual gold ring should be that they are cut.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Wow. Who do you think Bears the responsibility to test if these items are real? Do you think that falls the buyer, or the seller, museums themselves?

ERIN THOMPSON: I think buyers are responsible, not so much for whipping out an XRF machine and an electron-scanning microscope but for asking, where did this come from, this ancient object? Because then you can know a forgery doesn’t have a deep ownership history. It has maybe some fake documentation that you can detect more easily than you can detect the composition of copper or something. And by asking those questions about the origin of an object, you also avoid buying looted, or stolen, or smuggled antiquities, which is the other big curse of this market.

PATRICK DEGRYSE: Yes, indeed, I think– nowadays, I’m not very familiar with the private markets. I am familiar with museums and official instances, et cetera, and there, the problem is much more towards looted artifacts, smuggled artifacts. Is this a legal export? Is this object legally in circulation rather than is it forged?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Patrick, do forgers get wind of what techniques scientists are using or researchers, like yourself, are using to determine fakes and then use different methods to try to evade these techniques? It seems like it might become kind of a circle.

PATRICK DEGRYSE: Absolutely. They follow scientific literature. I’m convinced when something is detected, oh, we need to counter this again. An example is absolute dating. There are methods to date in an absolute way how old some objects are.

For some materials, this works very well. For others, it doesn’t. But for instance, for ceramics, which is basically fired clay, you have techniques to measure when a material was fired, when it was made from a clay into a ceramic. It gives you an absolute time measurement since production of the artifact.

And so there are ways to counter this by irradiating objects. And so there have been instances of forgeries made that were irradiated after the forgery was made to make the object look much older than it is in reality. So you can try to counter these detection methods and techniques, and you see in the, over time, that forgers will adapt their methods, and will use new approaches, and learn from what science tells us. There is an arms race between those who try to convince people that their objects are real and those who are trying to detect that they are not.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And it’s been happening for a long time. In the late 19th century, some scholars of ancient Greek statues said, oh, these objects on the market are fake because, look, they don’t even have any root marks. So if something is buried for thousands of years, it develops a sort of crustacean from the soil, and roots growing around it will make specific marks.

And so forgers said, OK, no problem. We’re going to plant some basil on top of our next round of forgeries that were aging in the ground, and then they get some lovely root marks. I’m Kathleen Davis, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

I’m speaking with Erin Thompson and Patrick Degryse about forged antiquities and the science used to determine what is real and what’s fake. So earlier this month, I spoke to Martin Polkinghorne, who is an associate professor of archeology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. Martin studies Cambodian artifacts. And a few years ago he went to a workshop in Angkor that creates forged antiquities to sell to art collectors, and this is what he had to say about that experience.


– Without specific information, whether that begins with a lack of local knowledge or archeological records, that link a sculpture to a certain archeological site, every single sculpture must be questioned whether it is real and fake if it appears in an international collection.


KATHLEEN DAVIS: So I’m curious, how do you both react to that? Is that something that you agree with, that you disagree with?

ERIN THOMPSON: I agree absolutely that, without archeological excavation, you can’t know for sure. There are also cases through history of forgers staging excavations. So they make something. They bury it. They bring the customer in and then, oh, we’ve discovered this. Don’t you want to buy it?

So I really have reached a level of paranoia about authenticity of ancient objects. But I think it’s justified. And it is a astounding to me how many people collect Cambodian ancient sculpture without knowing that either it came out of the country completely illegally or it was faked. I think there’s an element of superiority in the market in thinking, oh, ancient Cambodians had this wonderful sculptural technology, but now these modern people, the modern inhabitants of the country don’t know how to do it as well.

But they do, and they’re making beautiful sculpture, and then throwing it in pits with some acid for a couple of months, and then selling it to you or to the Sheikh, in this case, for $2.2 million is what he paid for a statue that he thought was ancient Cambodian.

PATRICK DEGRYSE: I agree entirely, but it does depend on the market, of course. If there is a market for it, then forgers will be attracted to it. And this shows an evolution through time.

When there is an interest, you will see that forgers for financial gain will move towards that market, and so in that certain time, then a certain category of objects becomes very suspect and should be investigated more thoroughly. In other time periods, that will be other regions, other types of artifacts. But it’s always that middle range of market, I’d say.

If you have this really, really expensive, say, a van Gogh painting, et cetera, that will be subjected to so much scrutiny that it becomes very, very difficult to pass something as right when it’s wrong, and when it’s a very cheap market, it’s not worth going through the trouble of forging materials. So that middle segment, where there is a market and an interest, that is the one to look for or to have a very great interest in looking for forgeries.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, and if you listeners want to look for forgeries for yourself, I encourage you just to go to eBay and search for Greek antiquities, Roman, Cambodia, and whatever, and you will see some pretty laughable forgeries, I would say.

So we’re almost out of time, but I do want to touch on this fact that is sort of an unpleasant reality of art collections and some museums, where many of these contain items that were looted or stolen from their places of origin, if not faked, and brought to another country, how do we disentangle our appreciation for art and museums with all these ethical complications? I know that’s a big question, but is there a way to do that, Erin?

ERIN THOMPSON: I think museum visitors have to ask, where did this come from? It’s a hard question to ask, but we need to do it. These days, we’re worried about, what is the sourcing of our coffee? Is our chocolate ethically harvested? We can be ethical consumers of art as well.

PATRICK DEGRYSE: There is an opportunity for education there. Even if objects are returned and forgeries are kept and displayed, it is not a disadvantage. It’s an opportunity to educate on looted art, on forgery, on history of the whole discipline. So yes, there are options there.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I would like to thank my guests, Erin Thompson, art crime professor at the City University of New York based in New York City, and Patrick Degryse, professor of archeometry at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. Thank you both for joining me today.



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About Kathleen Davis

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