Using chemistry to detect counterfeit art

Using forensic tools and practices, art forgery is being examined through a scientific lens

This is a photo of someone painting a picture. There are paints next to them as they begin painting on a canvas.
PHOTO: Rifqi Ali Ridho / Unsplash

By: Natalie Cooke, News Writer

Byron Gates, a professor at SFU with expertise in surface and materials chemistry, has found new ways to detect art forgery. 

With help from Nabyl Merbouh, a teaching professor at SFU, they have constructed a project for students to investigate fake art. Merbouh said to SFU News, “We’re teaching students more than 20 different types of analytical methods and technologies by the time they’re finished with the curriculum at SFU.” 

Using forensic tools and equipment, such as electron microscopy, energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy instruments, pieces of artwork can be examined with great detail. Gates told SFU News, “In looking at forgeries, it really comes down to the fingerprinting, the chemistry behind it.” 

Art forgery is intentionally misrepresenting legitimate work, creating counterfeits, or printing copies of an original piece.

The tools that are being used will be highly interesting for students to use and understand. Gates shared to SFU News, “One of these tools is the same type of tool used by forensic investigators to diagnose gunpowder residue. This tool can provide a very sensitive measurement of the elemental composition of a sample using non-destructive methods.”

Gates explained certain inks and elements have been banned since they were once used on a piece, due to the toxic nature of the resource; now you can no longer find certain materials in paintings today. “Even though it looks the same, the fingerprint behind it — a shade of pink or a shade of white — it’s really not the same underneath.” Therefore, eras and locations play an important role in determining the authenticity of the painting. 

SFU students who gain this practical experience using forensic tools, could have a gateway of opportunities open to them. For example, careers in analytical sciences can range from art restoration and forensic investigation, to quality control and agri-tech

Experts have said “50% of artwork in circulation is not authentic.” The Fine Arts Expert Institute said, “Between 70% and 90% of pieces that go through their laboratory come out as fakes.” Art forgery is not only about owning an unauthentic piece of art, but also a multi-million dollar issue. 

The Peak reached out to Gates for an interview, but did not receive a response by the publication deadline. For more information on Gates and Merbouh’s work at SFU, visit the SFU 4D Labs website.