Using Science to Detect Art Forgery in Paintings

Using Science to Detect Art Forgery in Paintings

Author: Vera Koester, Jehane Ragai (© Photo: Nathan Pitt, University of Cambridge, UK)

Jehane Ragai is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt, and the author of the non-fiction book “The Scientist and the Forger: Probing a Turbulent Art World”.

Here, she talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemViews Magazine about the science behind forgery, what fascinates her about this topic, and her scientific career path.

What is your book about?

“The Scientist and the Forger: Probing a Turbulent Art World” attempts to provide the reader with a holistic understanding of an art world shaped both by history and by fast-evolving views and trends. The book builds on the first edition, but takes a more in-depth look at some of the greatest art crimes to date. Through a series of case studies dealing with paintings, it gives insight into the tensions and intricacies of the rapidly growing international market, highlighting the plights of the expert, the collector, and the auction house. In a language easily accessible to the layperson, it describes a wide spectrum of old and new scientific methods that played a role with regard to authenticity in the cases under discussion. The reader is taken on a gripping journey, becoming witness to the attempts currently being made to safeguard a partly complicit art market.

Can you give an example of a forgery from the book?

A painting bought by American Heiress Peggy Guggenheim was believed to belong to Fernand Leger’s abstract series “Contrast of Forms”. It underwent a wide spectrum of scientific tests with inconclusive results and its authenticity remained a mystery for more than forty years. The enigma was finally solved by physicists in Florence who carried out a crucial and innovative analysis. Using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), they measured the concentration of radioactive carbon-14 on a small fragment of unpainted canvas, which indicated that the painting was produced after Leger’s death. This result is based on the fact that nuclear tests carried out in the 1950s and 1960s increased the level of 14C by almost 100 %, resulting in what is referred to as the “bomb peak effect”.

What fascinates you about this topic?

I have always been very interested in the interaction between the Humanities and the Sciences and have published a number of articles to this effect. What attracts me to the field of forgery detection and the authentication of paintings is the fact that this topic not only combines two different fascinating fields of study—Art and Science, but it also overarches the worlds of art and law, of finance and risk, and even of psychology (that of the viewer, the forger, and often that of the gallery dealer). I am enthralled by its multidimensional character.

How important is authenticity in the arts?

Authenticity is important on many fronts. Forged works in the arts provide a distorted art-historical understanding of the artist’s oeuvre.

Furthermore, the viewer looks for a new “creative and original” artistic endeavor in a work that he or she believes is authentic. If it is revealed as a forgery, it loses its hold on the viewer. Societal pressures, as well as snobbery, also play a role with regard to the importance of authenticity.

How is a robust profile of any artwork generated?

For a robust profile of an artwork (I am concentrating here on paintings), there needs to be an input from the expert connoisseur, the art historian, as well as the scientist.

The connoisseur will describe the style and the technique of the artwork attributed to a given artist. If asked to judge the authenticity of the work, the brushwork, style, and composition have to be consistent with those of the purported artist. Furthermore, there needs to be an examination as to whether or not the chronology of the painter’s own artistic development is followed.

The art historian will bring forward the historical and circumstantial evidence surrounding the artwork and, whenever possible, provide evidence of provenance.

The profile of the painting is completed by the scientist who, using appropriate tools, will examine the surface craquelure (the network of cracks in the paint or varnish) as well as its fluorescence properties, analyze the underdrawings, determine the nature of the pigments and binding materials, date the canvas, and also date the frame.

Can science authenticate art or can it only detect mistakes and inconsistencies?

Science generally detects anachronisms or anomalies in paintings that reveal forgeries. In case of authenticity determination, there is a need for a crucial relevant scientific experiment to be carried out to give a definitive answer with regard to the question of attribution.

For example:

  • Polarized light microscopy revealed pigments with atypical configurations in the painting “Infanta Margarita” thought to be by Manet. Two of Manet’s certified paintings, “Spanish Ballet” and “Woman with a Jug”, revealed pigments with the exact same atypical configurations. This led to the final authentication of the painting
  • The recently developed technique of Lead Isotope Ratio Determination was used and gave compelling evidence supporting the attribution of “Saint Praxedis” to Vermeer. Lead white samples taken from both “Saint Praxedis” and from another contemporary and uncontested work by Vermeer, “Diana and her Companions”, indicated that the lead used in “Saint Praxedis” was of Flemish/Dutch origin, and the paint closely matched that used in “Diana and her Companions”.
  • “Still life with meadow flowers and roses” was declared a genuine Van Gogh only when the technique of Synchrotron X-ray radiography was used to determine a clear underdrawing and gave a result that concurred with other art-historical evidence.

and so on …

Is every expensive painting analyzed?

Not very long ago, the eye of the expert connoisseur was sufficient evidence with regard to authenticity. Today, there is a pressing need for expensive paintings to be analyzed scientifically. There is a growing awareness of the importance of science in complementing the connoisseur’s eye. This, however, does not happen across the board.

Nonetheless, there is a realization among reputable auction houses that expensive paintings need to be scientifically analyzed. The recent purchase of the renowned scientific firm Orion Analytical by Sotheby’s is particularly telling and strongly suggests that scientific analysis has become part of the auction house’s due diligence.

Are there institutes specialized on this which I could commission before I buy an expensive artwork? Are these certified or who is controlling such labs?

There are indeed such laboratories, largely the realm of some specialized museums and universities. In addition, there are a precious few consultants worldwide working in their privately owned certified laboratories.

Does a good forger need scientific knowledge to put up with increasingly sophisticated techniques?

Yes, forgers today generally have an increased knowledge of what science can reveal and try to avoid any pitfalls. For instance, with the growing sophistication of the scientific tools of analysis, forgers generally know which are the anachronistic pigments, binding materials, and aging techniques to avoid.

Han Van Meegeren, one of the 20th century’s most ingenious art forgers, today would have probably avoided using phenol formaldehyde for the purpose of aging his forgeries. It was undetectable by the scientific methods available during his lifetime but is easily identified by modern-day techniques.

The forger Wolfgang Beltracchi knew exactly which materials should be used but did not realize that in one of his paintings the zinc white he chose was slightly adulterated with the anachronistic titanium dioxide. His scientific knowledge did not help him in this case.

How has your career developed?

I have always been attracted by the sciences and was hesitant between choosing a career in mathematics or in chemistry–I view Mathematics as a science in the broad sense of organized and formulated knowledge. I finally opted for chemistry and in 1966, I earned my undergraduate degree in chemistry from the American University in Cairo (AUC). In 1968, I received my Master’s degree in solid state science from the same institution.

Working on my Ph.D. was complicated, as my late husband was drafted into the Egyptian army and as a result of the 1967 war, his recruitment was for an undefined length of time. (It came to be seven years in his case.) It was therefore problematic for me to go abroad for a Ph.D. and leave my husband and one-year-old daughter. I was unable to register for such a degree in any of the Egyptian National Universities, as degrees from AUC were not accredited in Egypt at the time.

After many unsuccessful trials, I managed to be accepted in 1973 at Brunel, the University of West London, as their first overseas external student. The agreement was that I would carry out all the research work at AUC, where I had been hired as a full-time instructor, and then spend two months every summer at Brunel University. With such an arrangement, I managed to obtain my Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Brunel in 1976 (specializing in surface chemistry).

Because of my keen interest in archaeological chemistry, I subsequently acted as a chemical consultant to the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) Sphinx project. I also served on the National Committee for the Study of the Sphinx, and from 2001 to 2008, I was a member of the Board of Governors of the ARCE. During this time, I traveled extensively around the world to universities and museums and gave lectures on the scientific detection of forgery in paintings and on ancient Egyptian science.

As a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at AUC, I chaired its Senate (1998–2000), its Department of Chemistry (2000–2006), and was the Director of its Chemistry Graduate program (2008–2013).

I retired in 2013 to live in Cambridge, UK, with my husband John Meurig Thomas and am now an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at AUC.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

What I enjoyed most about my career at AUC was imparting knowledge through my teaching as well as interacting with my students and colleagues in the chemistry department. I also greatly enjoyed supervising the research of young chemists and observing the enthusiasm of some for science.

Now that I have retired, what I cherish and enjoy most is keeping in touch and interacting with many of my former students and watching a good number of them have very successful careers.

What has been your biggest motivation?

My biggest motivation to pursue a career in chemistry and in particular physical chemistry was Professor Rashad Razouk, who taught all my physical chemistry courses at the undergraduate level. His creative teaching approach, which emphasized critical thinking, played an important role in motivating me to specialize in physical chemistry.

What got you into writing books?

In 2012, I was invited to present a lecture at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia on the scientific detection of forgery in paintings. The audience’s enthusiastic reception of the topic prompted me to expand the talk into a book. This led to the first edition of my book “The Scientist and the Forger: Insights into the Scientific Detection of Forgery in Paintings”.

Two years after its publication, I realized that the issues surrounding forgery in paintings had moved so rapidly that an updated and somewhat different version of the book was called for. This led me to write the second somewhat different edition entitled “The Scientist and the Forger: Probing a Turbulent Art World”.

Whereas the first edition dealt mainly with the scientific techniques employed in the detection of forgery, this new version devoted greater attention to the plight of authenticators, collectors, and gallery dealers and to the relentless efforts made by professionals belonging to diverse disciplines to safeguard today’s art market.

What else do you do besides writing books?

As a retired professor, one of my hobbies is to write articles that deal with the interaction of the Arts and the Sciences. I recently wrote an article entitled “Snapshots of Chemical Practices in Ancient Egypt”, which is in press and due to be published in the international journal Substantia (published by Florence University Press). I also wrote an editorial entitled “Rising Fakes in Egypt”, which was published in the Journal of Art Crime. I continue to lecture on topics related to Ancient Egyptian Science and to the scientific detection of forgery in paintings.

Since 2008, I have been a jury member for the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science award, founded by the Nobel Laureates Christian de Duve and Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. This is a great opportunity that keeps me abreast of all the wonderful research work carried out by women worldwide.

I am also happy to indulge in reading (scientific as well as non-science books) and to have more time for my other hobbies, which include listening to music, reading poetry, and designing jewelry.

What else would you like readers of ChemViews Magazine to know?

I would like them to know that my philosophy in life is summarized in those lines by Robert Frost:
“My object in living is to unite.
My avocation and my vocation.
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”

Thank you very much for the interview.

Jehane Nour el Din Ragai, born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1944, obtained the French Baccalaureate from the French Lycee in Cairo in 1962, received a B.Sc. in chemistry in 1966 (magna cum laude) and an M.Sc. in solid state science in 1968, both from the American University in Cairo (AUC). In 1976, she received her Ph.D. from Brunel, the University of West London, UK. Jehane Ragai was a Professor of Chemistry at AUC and retired in 2014.

Given her additional interest in archaeological chemistry, she was a consultant to the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) Sphinx project, has served on the National Committee for the Study of the Sphinx, was a member of the Board of Governors of the ARCE for seven years (2001–2008), and a member of the international jury for the L’Oreal-UNESCO “Women in Science award” (2008 – today).


Selected Awards

  • 2018 – Elected as Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Society of Arts and Sciences (an academy established in 1778)
  • 2013 – AUC University wide best teacher award
  • 2007 – AUC School of Science and Engineering award: for outstanding efforts as Chair of the Chemistry Department
  • 1995 – AUC Trustees merit award
  • 1997 – AUC Trustees merit award

Selected Publications
(articles chosen mostly from those dealing with the interaction of arts and science)




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