Category: Science and Art

How to Identify Fake Paintings

How to Identify Fake Paintings

Think about the last time you walked through a museum. So many beautiful works of art to admire! But have you ever wondered if those artworks are actually authentic? Were they really done by the famous artists to whom they were attributed? Or are they modern-day forgeries? Let’s see if there’s a way to tell if an artwork is fake or real and see how to identify fake paintings using science.

Different scientific methods provide different kinds of information about the object we analyze and they can be used to detect if a painting is fake or real. These scientific methods can be clustered into three categories depending on the type of information they can provide. The three categories are: visual (or imaging), elemental (or structural), and dating techniques.

Visual (or imaging) techniques

Visual techniques consist of scientific methods that can provide some sort of visual cues or images of the painting. These can be used to analyze that painting and search for details that you would expect to appear, or not, in that particular painting.

Some of these techniques can be used to image the underlayers of a painting. Depending on which area of the electromagnetic spectrum we employ, we can access some, or all, layers of a painting

Infrared reflectography

If we use infrared radiation in a technique called infrared reflectography, we can obtain images of the sketch layer. Through the analysis of the sketch layer, we can see if there are any differences between what the sketch and the final painting look like. This doesn’t necessarily tell if the painting is a forgery, it could simply mean that the artist changed his or her mind while creating the painting. But a significant difference between the sketch and the final product is something that should be further investigated.


In X-radiography we make use of X-rays to obtain an image that contains information about different layers of the painting. Sometimes forgers reuse old canvas to paint their forgeries to make them look older. If the X-radiography reveals a newer painting beneath what is sold as an older painting, then that’s a clear indication of forgery.

Neutron activation autoradiography

In neutron activation autoradiography we use neutrons to irradiate the painting. We then obtain images showing the distribution of pigments containing the activated radioactive elements from the painting layers. If the autoradiography reveals the presence of newer pigments in the painting, pigments that were not available at the time when the painting was made, that could be an indication of forgery.


We can use a stereo microscope to carefully examine the surface of the painting. One indication of forgery could be found in the craquelure pattern – that is, the patterns of cracking observed on the surface of the painting, which can be due to aging. There are different craquelure morphology styles observed in paintings from different periods and countries. A pattern that is inconsistent with the expected pattern of that painting could be an indication of forgery.

Ultraviolet fluorescence

The painting surface can also be inspected under UV light using a method called ultraviolet fluorescence. When UV light is shone on the painting’s surface it will induce visible fluorescence in some of the painting’s materials. This fluorescence is visible to the human eye and it provides an indication of restoration or overpaints, and while it could simply be an indication of restoration, it could also point towards forgery.

Elemental (or structural) techniques

The elemental, or structural techniques, are scientific methods that provide information about which chemical elements are present in the painting. They can also provide information about the presence of certain chemical functional groups, and even more complex structural information. Detecting certain elements in a painting that should not be there is a clue that could be used to identify fake paintings.

Element identification

To identify the elements that are present in the painting we can use X-ray fluorescence (or XRF) and proton-induced X-ray emission (or PIXE). For this kind of analysis, we send a beam of either X-rays (in XRF) or high-energy protons (in PIXE) to a spot on the painting that we want to analyze. In both cases, X-rays are emitted as a response, and by analyzing the energy of those X-rays we can identify the elements that are present in the painting.

Once we know which elements are present in the painting we can then identify the pigments used in creating the painting. Identifying certain pigments that were not available at the time when the painting was supposedly made could be an indication that the painting is a forgery.

Chemical functional group identification

We can detect the presence of certain chemical groups and molecular fragments by using infrared and Raman spectroscopy, as well as mass spectrometry. All of these methods are helpful in identifying the pigments, however, mass spectrometry is an invasive technique. That means that we have to remove a bit of a sample from the painting in order to analyze it. Ideally, especially if the painting is authentic, we’d prefer to use non-invasive techniques.

All of these methods complement each other, and the more information we can gather about the different chemical components of the pigments and binders, the more confident we can be in our verdict of whether the painting is fake or real.

Dating techniques

Dating techniques are methods that can reveal the age, or information about the aging, of the painting. The age of the painting can be used to identify fake paintings.

Radiometric dating

To find out the age of an object we can use radiometric dating. This method makes use of the radioactive decay of certain elements in the sample. Probably the most commonly heard of is radiocarbon dating. Knowing how much carbon-14 we have in a sample and the isotope’s half-life, that is the time it takes for the initial amount of carbon-14 in the sample to decay to half of that amount, we can use this information to find the age of the painting sample we’re measuring.


Another dating method is dendrochronology or tree ring dating. While this method can provide accurate chronology, it can only be applied to wooden objects. For paintings, this means we can only apply dendrochronology to paintings done on wood panels. We can use the tree ring information – the ring number and patterns – from the wooden panel to identify the age of that panel.

If either of these dating methods determines that the painting is newer than its attributed date, that’s yet another indication that we’re dealing with a forgery. However, if the date matches, that’s not an indication of authenticity. That’s why it’s always best to combine the information obtained from different scientific methods before giving a final verdict.

Mobile nuclear magnetic resonance

Mobile nuclear magnetic resonance uses radiofrequency pulses to irradiate a sample in a magnetic field. It is a non-invasive technique that can be used to analyze painting stratigraphy and the aging of paint. This is important because forgers like to artificially age their paintings to make them look old to appear authentic. So then the chemical signature of artificial aging could also be used to identify fake paintings.


Provenance is not a scientific method, but it is one method that has been used extensively in assessing the authenticity of a painting.

Provenance uses historical records of ownership of the painting from the time it was created up until its current ownership. Unfortunately, provenance can also be forged, and some of the famous art forgers managed to get away with their forger careers for a long time because they were so good at forging not only the paintings but also the historical records.

This is why it’s better to rely on clear scientific evidence when identifying forgeries. And the more information we can gather from different scientific methods, the more accurate our conclusion will be.

X-Ray Fluorescence for the Elemental Analysis of Artwork

X-Ray Fluorescence for the Elemental Analysis of Artwork

Imagine you’re Indiana Jones, and in one of your archaeological adventures, you find a mysterious object. You can learn about the composition of that object by using an elemental analysis method called X-ray fluorescence, or XRF. The advantage of XRF spectroscopy is that it can reveal the elemental composition in a non-invasive way. This way, we can continue to preserve the heritage objects.

How does X-ray fluorescence work?

To analyze an object, we bring the XRF instrument close to the area of the object we want to investigate, and we irradiate that area with X-rays. X-rays are high-energy electromagnetic waves.

schematic representation of the X-ray fluorescence method
Schematic representation of the X-ray fluorescence method.

After we send the beam of X-rays to that area, we then record with the help of a detector the radiation emitted as a response to the irradiation with X-rays. What we’re recording is the X-ray fluorescence. This recorded signal is then analyzed, and after the analysis, we can find out which chemical elements are present in the sample. 

There are different types of XRF instruments – some are larger and are fixed in labs; others are smaller and portable. With the portable XRF instruments, we can record experiments even in more remote locations like archaeological sites. The entire XRF experiment can be as fast as a few seconds or longer, lasting several minutes. 

X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy

When we irradiate a material with X-rays, we can find out which elements are present in that material by analyzing the X-ray fluorescence energy.

At the atomic level, when we irradiate the sample with a beam of X-rays, in response to those X-rays, one electron from the inner shells is removed from the atomWith this electron out of the atom, now there’s a vacancy in one of the inner shells of the atoms. Then, an electron from an outer shell comes to the inner shell and takes the place of the electron that was kicked out by the primary X-ray. When the outer shell electron moves to the inner shell, an energy is released in the form of X-ray fluorescence. This energy is then recoded by the detector. And by analyzing this energy, we can find out which elements are present in the sample. 

X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy
X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy

The X-ray fluorescence associated with each of these transitions has a precise energy value. This energy is given by the energy difference between the inner shell and the outer shell. In X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, we obtain spectra where peaks are present at the energy values specific to the elements present in the sample. This reveals the elemental composition of the sample.

Applications of XRF in the elemental analysis of artwork

One of the advantages of using XRF in the elemental analysis of artwork is given by its non-invasive nature. This allows for the experiments to be recorded without damaging the investigated objects, which is of great benefit when analyzing precious objects of cultural heritage that need to be kept intact.

We can use XRF spectroscopy to analyze cultural heritage objects like paintings, sculptures, mosaics, coins, wall paintings, etc. The analysis can reveal details about the materials used in the construction of those objects. 

Besides the elemental analysis and getting information on which elements are present in a sample, we can also record XRF mapping of artworks. So if we analyze a painting, we can obtain a full two-dimensional map of that painting showing the distribution of different elements in the painting. Scientists from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recoded XRF maps of Van Gogh’s Irises and Roses and Johannes Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid, revealing which elements are present in which areas of the paintings.

By knowing which is the elemental composition of artwork, scientists can propose the best conservation and restoration methods suitable for those objects.

The electromagnetic spectrum in cultural heritage

The electromagnetic spectrum in cultural heritage

How much of the world do you think we can see in visible light? The answer is: about 0.0035%. That’s just a very, very tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is the light that’s visible to our eyes! Everything else is energy, or electromagnetic radiation, of wavelengths that are not visible to the human eye. We need special equipment to detect electromagnetic radiation of all these other wavelengths. Let’s have a look at the electromagnetic spectrum, the electromagnetic waves, and the applications of electromagnetic waves in cultural heritage and in our daily lives.

What is the electromagnetic spectrum?

The electromagnetic spectrum consists of all the electromagnetic waves of all possible energies moving through space at the speed of light. The different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum are: gamma rays, X-rays, UV rays, visible light, IR light, microwaves, and radio waves. All of these electromagnetic waves have applications in cultural heritage.

The electromagnetic spectrum - the wavelength of the electromagnetic waves increases from the gamma rays to the radio waves.
The electromagnetic spectrum - the wavelength of the electromagnetic waves increases from the gamma rays to the radio waves.

What are electromagnetic waves?

Electromagnetic waves are composed of oscillating electric and magnetic fields, as shown in the figure below. The electric field (in blue) and magnetic field (in red) are perpendicular to one another and perpendicular to the direction of propagation of the wave. These waves travel in vacuum at the speed of light, and they carry electromagnetic energy. Their wavelength, defined as the distance between two successive peaks of the wave, can be very short or very long, or anything in between. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency of the wave, and the higher the energy of the electromagnetic radiation.

electromagnetic waves composed of oscillating electric and magnetic fields
Electromagnetic waves composed of oscillating electric and magnetic fields.

Gamma rays

The gamma rays are the highest energy waves of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. That means they have the highest frequency and the shortest wavelengths.

They are produced in the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei and in nuclear explosions. Even though we can’t see them with the naked eye, using specialized equipment, we can detect the gamma rays produced by grand events, such as supernova explosions to smaller-scale events, like the radioactive decay of radioisotopes. 

In cultural heritage, the gamma radiation can be used to determine the composition of certain artifacts because of the different energy signature of each chemical element in a gamma-ray spectrum.


X-rays are also very high in energy, but not quite as high as the gamma rays.

You may be familiar with the X-rays from the medical field, where X-rays are used to acquire images of your bones. Another familiar application of X-rays is in airport security, where the contents of your luggage are scanned with X-rays.

In cultural heritage, we can use X-rays in X-radiography to obtain images of paintings in X-rays. This can sometimes reveal other paintings beneath the visible paint layer.

X-rays can also be employed in cultural heritage through a method called X-ray fluorescence, or XRF (my favorite scientific method used in cultural heritage). Using XRF, we can determine the elemental composition of objects of cultural heritage. This can help us identify the materials used in creating those objects. And knowing the chemical composition of heritage objects can help us find the best conservation conditions for those objects.

Ultraviolet rays

The Ultraviolet (or the UV) region is the region between the visible and the X-ray regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Probably the most common topic where UV comes up is the UV rays that we receive from the sun. On the one hand, this UV light is beneficial because it helps the organism produce vitamin D. On the other hand, overexposure to the sun’s UV light can lead to sunburn, or more severe consequences, such as skin cancer. So be careful with the exposure to UV light, whether that’s from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds. 

In cultural heritage, UV lamps can be used to examine the surface of art objects. For example, they can be used to detect retouches and restorations of art objects, as these are done on the object surface. This way, through the details revealed in UV light, we can learn about the history of a certain object.

Visible light

The visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum is composed of electromagnetic radiation whose wavelengths we can detect with our eyes.

There are many sources of visible light. Some of these include the sun, the aurora borealis and australis, or the fireflies.

In cultural heritage, in visible light, we can observe and admire our favorite works of art. But, visible light can also damage the objects. That’s why you see certain objects, like old books and parchments in museums, kept in dimmer light.

Infrared light

The infrared (or IR) radiation is lower in energy than the visible light.

In the infrared region, the most common application is the TV remote. But it can also be used in thermal imaging, which works by detecting the radiation with infrared wavelengths, which is emitted by hot objects, including human bodies. This is very useful currently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to detect the high temperature in people.

In cultural heritage, IR spectroscopy can be used to identify the chemical composition of art objects. And infrared images can be used to view the sketch layers of paintings, underneath the painting layers that we can observe with our eyes. This way, we can see what the original sketch looked like, and, by comparing it to the final product, we can see if the artist changed his or her mind while creating the painting.


With lower energy than the IR radiation, this is where our microwave ovens work. But these waves are also used in communications and radars. 

In cultural heritage, microwaves treatment of artwork can help with the disinfestation from various biological agents infesting these artworks.

Radio waves

The radio waves, at the very left of the electromagnetic spectrum,  are the least energetic electromagnetic waves.

Their most common applications are in radios, communications, and air-traffic control. One of my favorite applications of radio waves is in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or SETI). This is a project that uses big radio antennas to detect signals from outer space. This signal is then analyzed for any patterns that might indicate intelligent communication from someone from outer space. Let’s keep on searching for messages from E.T.!

In cultural heritage, radio waves are used through a scientific method called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, or NMR. Mobile NMR (NMR in low magnetic fields) can reveal the stratigraphy of paintings through the use of the Profile NMR-MOUSE. It can also be used to study the aging of heritage objects and to monitor the water penetration in wall paintings, which can lead to their deterioration.

The building blocks of tangible heritage

The building blocks of tangible heritage

Tangible heritage is an essential aspect of our world’s cultural heritage. It consists of physical items varying from small artifacts to large buildings and archaeological sites. But what are these heritage objects, such as, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for example, made of? Atoms, molecules, and crystals!

The atom and the atomic structure

atomic structureThe atom is composed of a central region, called the nucleus, and of electrons, which surround the nucleus. The nucleus is made up of protons, positively charged particles, and neutrons, neutral particles. Because of the positively charged protons in the nucleus, the nucleus itself has a positive charge. 

The electrons, which are outside the nucleus, are negatively charged particles that circle around the nucleus. They are attracted by the positive charge of the nucleus, thus keeping the atom together.

atomic nucleus and electrons

The electrons are organized on different shells surrounding the nucleus, represented here by the blue circle and the orange circle. Each of these shells corresponds to a different energy level. So the shells closer to the nucleus (the blue circle here) have lower energy than the ones that are further away (orange circle). The lower energy shells get populated first, and when they are filled with the maximum number of electrons allowed in that shell, then the outer shells get populated.

The number of electrons around the nucleus is equal to the number of protons inside the nucleus. And this gives us the atomic number (Z), which is the number of protons in the nucleus. This is a number that is specific to each element in the periodic table. The elements in the periodic table are organized function of their increasing atomic number. In the periodic table, we see that the further we go in periods and down the groups, the higher the atomic number. So we’ll have more and more protons in the nucleus and more electrons surrounding it. That means that we need to add more shells in order to accommodate all the electrons of the heavier elements. 

These shells and electrons and how the electrons can move from one shell to another one are very important when discussing different scientific techniques, especially X-ray fluorescence (XRF), my favorite scientific technique that is used to study tangible heritage. Different scientific methods that can be used to study heritage objects made up of all the different elements. Some techniques are better suited than others to study different elements.

From atoms to molecules

Atoms can bond to one another to form molecules. There are different types of bonds that the different elements can form with one another, but what’s important to know here is that they can associate to form molecules with varying degrees of complexity.

the water moleculeA simple example is the water molecule. It is made up of only three atoms – one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. The water molecule is formed by binding the two hydrogen atoms to the oxygen atom. 

Why, you may wonder, do we care about water in cultural heritage?! We care a great deal about water in cultural heritage. That’s because humidity, that is, water, can lead to the aging and, therefore, the deterioration of art objects. 

Similarly to creating a simple molecule, like water, by putting three atoms together, we can do the same with a larger number of atoms and a larger variety of elements. This way, we can create much more complex molecules, each with its own special properties.

From molecules to crystal structures

Atoms and molecules can further associate to form crystals. Starting from one molecule, we can get different types of crystal structures depending on how the molecules are organized with respect to one another in the unit cell, how many molecules of the same kind there are in the crystal unit, how big the unit cell is, etc. These are called polymorphs, and that’s another one of my favorite research topics, besides cultural heritage.

titanium dioxide crystal structure
titanium dioxide crystal structure

In the unit cell, each atom has an exact position, and by translating the unit cell in all the directions of space, we create the material which is based on the composition and structure of that unit cell. An example of crystal structure relevant to cultural heritage is titanium dioxide, the chemical name for the titanium white pigment. This pigment led to the discovery of a series of painting forgeries and to the arrest of the art forger. This forger is Wolfgang Beltracchi, and he was caught because science detected the presence of titanium white in a certain painting where it shouldn’t have been.

Knowledge of the atomic, molecular, and crystal structure of tangible heritage materials can help us learn more about the materials which the artists used in their work. That will help us better conserve and maybe even restore them, and it can also help in catching art forgers.

What is cultural heritage and how can science protect it?

What is cultural heritage and how can science protect it?

What is cultural heritage? What do you think of when the word “heritage” comes to mind? Cultural heritage is the legacy we have received from past generations. It’s a collection of sites, objects and traditions that bring together the history, art and values of different cultures. It consists of tangible heritage, intangible heritage and natural heritage.

Tangible Heritage

Chichen Itza Mexico
Chichen Itza, Mexico

Tangible heritage consists of physical items, such as buildings and archaeological sites. Some of these include the famous Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, or the pyramid of Chichen Itza, Mexico, or the Great Wall of China, all of these being representations of different cultures around the globe.

Another part of the tangible heritage are the artifacts that you can find in historical places, museums, or private collections. These can be paintings, to name a few of the famous ones: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Monet’s water lilies, or Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Other artifacts include old books and parchments, such as the Gutenberg bible, and the Dead Sea scrolls. We can also count here the sculptures of great artists like Michelangelo’s David, the Terracotta Army, and my absolute favorite – the moai of Rapa Nui, the island more commonly known as Easter Island.

Moai at Ahu Tongariki Rapa Nui
Moai at Ahu Tongariki, Rapa Nui

I love the history of Rapa Nui. In fact, visiting this special island in the middle of the Pacific inspired me to write my first novel and I love sharing with people the different historical aspects of Rapa Nui, such as the creation of the moai and the birdman competition.

Natural Heritage

Natural heritage is an aspect of tangible heritage that represents the natural beauties of this world. Some of the natural heritage sites include the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Queensland Australia, the Galapagos islands, in the Pacific Ocean, or one of my favorites – the Ilulissat Icefiord in Greenland.

Greenland icebergs
cruising among icebergs in Greenland

The Ilulissat Icefiord is probably one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited and I highly recommend it to anyone searching for adventures among icebergs.

Intangible Heritage

Intangible heritage refers to beliefs, traditions, as well as knowledge and skills that are transmitted from one generation to the next.

Mexican tradition Day of the Dead
Mexican tradition Day of the Dead

Some of these include the Mexican festivity dedicated to the day of the dead, or the Chinese traditional medicine practice of acupuncture, or the traditional dances of Bali in Indonesia.

To learn more about intangible heritage, you can explore the UNESCO list of intangible heritage.


Heritage Science

Heritage Science is the field that uses science to study objects and sites of cultural heritage. Having a better understanding tangible heritage helps with the preservation or our world heritage. This way, many future generations can also enjoy our cultural heritage.

Some of the ways in which science can help cultural heritage is: dating objects, helping with heritage conservation and restoration, and in authenticating art. Here, you can find out more details about all of these different ways in which science is used in cultural heritage.

The NMR-MOUSE in Cultural Heritage

The NMR-MOUSE in Cultural Heritage

A MOUSE??! No, this is not a real living mouse that runs freely around cultural heritage sites if that’s what you have in mind. Nor is it a computer mouse to facilitate interaction between humans and computers. So what is it then?

The NMR-MOUSE stands for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance – MObile Universal Surface Explorer. I know this sounds like a tongue twister, but the simple way to view it is as a mobile NMR magnet. If you want to know what this means keep on reading. The NMR-MOUSE was initially developed in the group of Prof. Bernhard Bluemich at RWTH-Aachen University, currently being manufactured by Magritek, and it has many applications, including its use in the field of cultural heritage.

The science of the NMR-MOUSE

The NMR-MOUSE recording an experiment on a Beltracchi forgery.

The NMR-MOUSE is a mobile NMR sensor that records NMR experiments in low magnetic fields. These magnetic fields are few times smaller than the magnetic fields of the MRI magnets used in hospitals. Unlike the MRI magnets, which use superconducting magnets, the NMR-MOUSE uses permanent magnets (the black box in the picture) to create the magnetic field. A surface coil is then attached to the magnet. This coil sends radio-frequency pulses into an area of the sample which we want to investigate. The nuclei of the sample respond differently to these radio-frequency pulses depending on their environment. For example, if you’re comparing the response of a porous sample, such as a building wall, situated in a humid environment and one from a dry environment you will get very different NMR results. That is because the wall in the humid environment absorbs water and this leads to changes in the NMR signal. These signals are detected by the same coil that sent the radio-frequency pulses to the sample and we analyze them to extract different information about the sample.

The MOUSE is placed on a sliding table to move the sensor up and down, or left and right, with respect to the sample. This allows us to record NMR experiments at different depths in the sample and obtain a stratigraphy of the sample we measure. For example, we can see the different layers of a painting, monitor the water penetration into a wall painting and distinguish between the different anatomical structures of the bone.

Advantages of using the NMR-MOUSE in cultural heritage

There are two major advantages of using the NMR-MOUSE in cultural heritage:

  • They are portable instruments. This means that the experiments can be recorded on site at the location of the analyzed object. Therefore, we can do NMR experiments inside museums, in archaeological sites, or in any other location, such as morgues or police stations. You’re probably wondering what do the last two locations have to do with cultural heritage. In my research I’ve done experiments in both: in the morgue measuring a mummified human cadaver for a project on ancient mummies and bones, and in the police station measuring painting forgeries to develop a method that uses the NMR-MOUSE to authenticate paintings.
  • They are non-invasive tools. This is very important when working in cultural heritage because we want to make sure we don’t damage the sample during the experiments. When you work in cultural heritage you want to protect the objects from any possible damage.

Applications of the NMR-MOUSE in cultural heritage

Being a mobile instrument that can record NMR experiments non-destructively makes the NMR-MOUSE an excellent tool for analyzing precious objects of cultural heritage. Here are some examples of objects and the type of information we can obtain using the NMR-MOUSE:

  • Paintings – information on the types of paints and treatments used in paintings, stratigraphy and authenticity of paintings
  • Historical buildings and frescoes – monitoring moisture content in wall paintings and analyzing their stratigraphy
  • Ancient mummies and bones – information on the state of conservation of mummies and bones
  • Historical paper – characterizing the degradation of historical paper
  • Musical instruments – information about the wood structure and treatments of master violins

If you want to learn more about these different applications of the NMR-MOUSE to cultural heritage sign up for my newsletter in the box below and I’ll keep you updated on the new stories.

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 the past and present cultures. I love imagining how 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 art 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 my other posts, I discuss specific case studies from the world of Heritage Science where all these scientific methods are applied in cultural heritage and I will explain in more detail how each method works, why it works, and when it doesn’t work.

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