Forensics with a difference

Most of us in the crime fraternity (that’s writers, by the way, in case you were wondering) are familiar with the use of forensics to solve crimes.  Murder, rape, even burglary – all can now be helped along by a range of techniques that were barely even known 20 years ago.

But it’s not just human crimes that benefit.  Thanks to a fascinating programme on the BBC the last few weeks, we’ve also found that it applies to the world of art forgery.  ‘Fake or Fortune’, presented by newsreader Fiona Bruce and art expert Philip Mould, takes a disputed painting each week and tries to prove whether it’s an original worth squillions, or a clever fake.

The results are sometimes surprising but always intriguing.  And they don’t always have a happy outcome – only last week a man desperate to pay off his father’s death duties so he could keep the family farm going was devastated to be told that there was no proof his picture of a fountain in the south of France was by Winston Churchill.

On the other hand, the elders of a church in rural Lancashire discovered that their dark, dingy and bat-poo-speckled scene of the Pieta (the dead Christ being taken down from the cross) was a 16th Century Italian ‘old master’, painted by Venetian artist Francesco Montemezzano (don’t worry, I’d never heard of him either) and worth a cool £100,000.

Of course, some of the investigation is based around traditional methods – paper trails, provenance, proof that a particular artist sold their work to the particular gallery where the owner bought it.  But on top of that, there is now a huge amount that can be added with the use of various kinds of forensics.  X-rays, to see if the work has been altered in any way, or painted over an earlier image.  Examination of the brush strokes.  Detailed testing of the pigments used, to show up any rogue elements such as modern chemicals that wouldn’t have been available at the time.  Ditto the composition of the paper or board the scene is painted on.  High-definition photography of the backing material to show up any writing, labels or codes that might have faded away.  Every last detail can now be inspected, checked and tested, so that when an expert announces that the painting is genuine, he’s basing that opinion on a wealth of scientific evidence rather than just his own personal opinion.

It makes for a clever detective story, and a mesmerising hour of television.

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