Tag: art forgeries

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.

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: https://www.beltracchi-art.com/

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!

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