Month: May 2018

What is the difference between a $1,000,000 and a $100 violin?

What is the difference between a $1,000,000 and a $100 violin?

Art is present in both the old master violins and in the new ones
Art is present in both the old master violins and in the new ones

The answer is not $999,900. Well, it is… but that’s only the minor difference between the $1,000,000 and $100 violins. The big question is: what causes this enormous price difference between the old master violins and the new ones?

The birth of a master violin

The art of creating violins originates in the 16th century in Cremona, Italy. There, in the workshop of the Andrea Amati, the first violin came to life. The technique was then passed on to other members of the Amati family and to other master violin makers, such as the Guarneri and the Rugeri families. Of course, when we talk about master violins, we have to mention also the name of Antonio Stradivari, probably the most famous violin maker. His violins, known under the name of Stradivarius, are some of the most expensive violins, valued to millions of dollars.

These old master violins from the original violin makers are the most expensive violins on the market. They are also the most desired violins in the world, every violinist dreaming of playing one.

Does a listener prefer a master violin or a newer one?

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) tries to answer this question. The study, “Listener evaluations of new and old Italian violins” evaluates the projection of the sound of old master violins and newer ones. In this test, listeners evaluated the sounds of these instruments played by renowned violinists, without prior knowledge on the age of the violin.

The results show that, surprisingly, the listeners preferred the projection of the newer instruments compared to the Stradivarius violins. This was valid for the cases when the violinist played the instrument with and without an orchestra.

Moreover, a previous study, by the same authors, shows that violinists are not able to distinguish between old and new violins when playing under blind conditions.

What we need to keep in mind about these results is that only a few instruments were tested. In order to gain a more accurate statistics, more instruments, old and new, need to be considered. In addition, a wider audience and a larger number of violinists could help in getting more accurate statistics.

For now, it’s enough to recognize that how we enjoy the sound of old or new violins depends on many factors. What we need to remember is take the time to listen and appreciate the art that is both the instrument and the music.

Are we too busy to appreciate the sound of a Stradivarius?

We like to think we love music and we buy expensive tickets to attend concerts and listen to good quality music played by renowned musicians. But, when we have the chance to do this for free we completely ignore it.

In 2007, The Washington Post and Joshua Bell, a famous violin player ran an experiment in a subway station in Washington. In this experiment, Joshua played six of the most difficult and exquisite classical music pieces on his $3.5 million Stradivarius. He played for 43 minutes in the morning when everyone was rushing through the subway station. The result? Out of 1,097 people who passed by during his mini-concert in the subway station, only seven people stopped to listen to his music. He also managed to gather a great fortune during this performance: $32! That’s quite a bit less than what he received three nights before in Boston. His performance at the Boston Symphony House filled the concert hall, many of those tickets being sold for $100 each.

What does this experiment say about us? Do we only appreciate music when we pay for it? Or, are we so busy and focused on our own lives that we can’t take a moment to admire the magnificence of the world around us?

If you want to read more about this, check out the Washington Post article that describes the Joshua Bell subway experiment.

We all have our busy lives, rushing to work, or to school or to do something else that’s very urgent. But maybe sometimes we should remember to just slow down and admire the beauty around us. Try it! You might find that your busy day suddenly gets better.

Watch out con artists: Science can end your art forger career

Watch out con artists: Science can end your art forger career

The most expensive Heinrich Campendonk painting was sold in 2006 for a price of $3.7 millions. The surprising element here is not the record price of this painting, but the fact that the most expensive Campendonk is not really a Campendonk. Its author is Wolfgang Beltracchi, and he could have kept on earning millions and millions of dollars from forgeries if Science hadn’t ended his career as a con artist.

Who is Wolfgang Beltracchi?

Wolfgang Beltracchi forgery of Max Ernst painting
Wolfgang Beltracchi forgery of a Max Ernst painting

Wolfgang Beltracchi is a con man, an art forger, and at the same time, a very talented artist. He forged paintings from many artists, including Heinrich Campendonk, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, André Derain, and many others. Many museums, auction houses and art collectors form all over the world bought and displayed his paintings not knowing that they were, in fact, forgeries. Christie’s even had his art work on the front cover of their catalogue.

How did he do it?

To start with, we have to think of the tremendous amount of work he put into forging these paintings. He studied the style, tools and technique of painting of each artist he forged. After researching the artist’s work, he would imagine and create new paintings that that artist might have painted. Thus, he created the missing pieces from that artist’s collection by using the artist’s style and methods. Then, his wife, Helene Beltracchi, would talk to art dealers and sell the paintings by claiming that they’re from an art collection the Beltracchis inherited.

With all his talent and the hard work he put into creating these forgeries it’s no wonder he managed to deceive so many specialists. Even Max Ernst’ widow stated that Beltracchi’s forest was the best Max Ernst forest painting she had seen.

How did science end the career of this famous art forger?

Wolfgang Beltracchi was very successful in his career as an art forger. He earned lots of money and he and his wife were living big, owning a villa in Freiburg and a yacht, and enjoying expensive parties and trips. All this ended when they sold the “Red Picture with Horses” painting claiming it was a 1914 Campendonk, and the Malta-based company that bought the painting asked for a certificate of authenticity.

The scientists who authenticated the painting used a technique called Raman spectroscopy to investigate the chemical composition of the pigments. In Raman spectroscopy, we detect the scattered light from a sample after being hit by a monochromatic laser beam. The detected signal contains information about different molecular vibrational modes and can reveal whether there are multiple chemical bonds or heavy atoms involved and what kind of chemical groups are present in the sample. Each of them would appear as peaks in a certain region of the Raman spectrum. The presence of these features in a Raman spectrum acts like fingerprinting, and its analysis can eventually provide information on the chemical composition of a sample.

When the scientists applied this technique to small samples taken from “Red Picture with Horses” they found something that shouldn’t have been there. The analysis revealed the presence of titanium white, a pigment that was available to artists only after 1921. Thus, by identifying the chemical composition of the pigments, scientists revealed the forgeries of Beltracchi. To his credit, Beltracchi did do his homework and checked the chemical composition of the pigments before using them. Unfortunately (of fortunately) the manufacturer of the pigment didn’t mention the presence of titanium white on the tube of pigment he used. This marked the end of the Beltracchis’ criminal adventures, the police started uncovering their entire operation, both of them ending up in prison.

In my research, we are analyzing Beltracchi’s forgeries by mobile NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) and comparing the data on the forgeries with the data we record on the original paintings. The purpose of this research is to develop a method that uses mobile NMR in a non-invasive way to identify forgeries.

From art forger to artist

Wolfgang Beltracchi is both a really good artist and a very charismatic person. These are both very good qualities, but certainly not when you use them to deceive people. After spending some time in prison and paying for his previous actions, he is now trying to make an honest living by painting under his own name. If you like his story and you’re interested in his art, here’s where you can find out more about it:

You might actually still see some of his paintings in museums because he claims he still has many paintings on display in museums under the name of different artists. So next time you’re in the modern art section of the museum think about this: is this really a Max Ernst or a Campendonk that I’m admiring, or is it one of the Beltracchi forgeries? 

My three main take-away messages from Beltracchis’ story are:

  1.  We should appreciate art for the art itself and not for the name behind it.
  2.  Science is very helpful in analyzing art works and catching criminals.
  3.  If you want a successful career as an art forger, don’t use the wrong pigments!

Here’s a final thought for all art forgers out there: don’t underestimate science!

Heritage and Science – what do they have in common?

Heritage and Science – what do they have in common?

Scientific investigation of a painting by mobile NMR
Scientific investigation of a painting

Whenever I go to a new place, one of my favorite things to do is visiting museums. I love museums and I can spend days in museums (but also in bookstores) without ever getting bored. That’s because I love learning about past and present cultures. I love imagining how people people used to live in the past and what their lives were like based on the information we gather from the little we have left from them. For the same reasons I also love archaeological sites, visiting old castles and ruins.

How can Science help the field of cultural heritage?

Most of the information we have about all these objects is gathered by using Science in one way or another. Here are four ways we can use Science in studying historical and art objects:


In order to find out the age of a certain object we can use scientific dating methods that involve radioisotopes. Isotopes are variants of the same element, with the same number of protons in the nucleus, but different number of neutrons. Some of these isotopes are unstable, radioactive isotopes that, over time, decay into more stable elements. One of these radioisotopes that can be used for dating objects is carbon-14 (number 14 tells us that there are 8 neutrons and 6 protons in the nucleus of this isotope). This is called radiocarbon dating. This element decays in time, a very long time – about 5730 years – to the more stable element nitrogen-14. Because we know this value, called the half-life, we can use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of objects that contain this isotope. This can be used for dating paintings, parchments, bones and other objects that are made from organic matter.

Art conservation

Different environmental factors, such as humidity, temperature or certain chemical and biological factors can lead to the deterioration of cultural heritage objects and sites. Using science we can identify the best conservation conditions for different objects based on the chemical composition of the object. Knowing what the objects are made of, we can understand what kind of external factors are most likely to lead to their deterioration. Once we have this information we can construct the ideal environment for each type of object. Thus, if we’re trying to conserve an object most prone to bacterial attack we would keep the object in a chamber of inert gas to reduce the damaging effects of bacteria. If we know that humidity is the problem, which is often the case of wall paintings and mosaics, then we can try to ensure dry preservation conditions for those objects. By keeping these objects in their ideal environment we can ensure their future conservation.

Art restoration

When the objects are in a poor state of conservation we need to go a step further – sometimes we can try to restore the objects to their original state. In time dust and other particles can accumulate on the surface of art objects, smoke and chemical reactions can lead to the discoloration of paintings and accumulation of patina on art objects made from metals, stone or wood. The first step of the restoration involves the cleaning of the object – a chemical cleaning for paintings and laster cleaning for objects covered by patina. After cleaning a painting, an art restorer could try to repair the tears in paintings, and eventually retouch the paint layer to return it to its original color. Extra care must be taken in the restoration process to ensure that the chemicals used for the cleaning and retouching are appropriate for that particular object. Any unwanted chemical reactions between the restoration materials and the art object can lead to bigger damages, and sometimes to the loss of art. This is why we need science in art restoration – to identify the correct materials we should use in restoring an art object.

Authentication of art

When it comes to authenticating art there are many scientific methods that we can use, all of them providing different information that could hint on whether an object is authentic or not. We can use dating methods, which will give us information about the age of the object. However, this method is invasive and not ideal when we’re dealing with a very precious object. Museums wouldn’t be too happy about scientists requesting samples of their most expensive paintings to analyze on a regular basis. Luckily, in the more recent year the amount of sample needed for this method is minimal and that opened new possibilities in radioisotopic dating. Other scientific methods provide information about the chemical composition of the different materials and pigments that could also be used to authenticate art objects. In my own research, we’re working on developing a method that uses nuclear magnetic resonance to authenticate paintings. All these methods are valuable tools for authentication of art, but ideally one would use a combination of the above-mentioned methods to assess the authenticity of art objects.

In future posts I will discuss specific case studies where all these scientific methods are applied in cultural heritage and I will explain in more details how each method works, why it works and when it doesn’t work.

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