Students use technology to help authenticate priceless art works

Editor's note: this is one of a series of articles about students who were involved in cool research, scholarly or creative activity this summer.

One of the most troubling dilemmas for collectors of fine art comes in discerning between genuine paintings and forgeries, but modern science is taking some of the guesswork out of the process. A pair of students recently spent two weeks at Cambridge University in England using state-of-the-art diagnostic imaging techniques to analyze rare pieces by some of the world’s best-known painters.

Dmitry Gavrilov, a PhD student in physics and Mouhanned El-Youssef, a master’s student in electrical and computer engineering, went to the Hamilton Kerr Institute where they used a process called thermography to study works by a number of famous painters including Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, Italian painter Tizanio Vecelli – otherwise known as Titian – French classical painter Nicolas Poussin and German painter Lucas Cranach.

“We are not making conclusions about the authenticity of a piece of art work,” Gavrilov said of the process they used to examine about 20 paintings. “We can just provide the data to the art experts.”

That process essentially involves slightly warming the surface of the painting by flashing light on it in brief bursts while using an infrared camera to capture several hundred images per second of what’s happening beneath the painting’s surface. Heat propagates down through the surface of the painting, but defects stop that heat flow. The camera captures that process, while the images are processed by a series of algorithms that examine changes in temperature, which would indicate a defect.

“It helps with finding defects, but also with finding hidden features, like sketches a painter might have made before he painted the canvas,” explained Gavrilov, originally from Russia. “We can find the features that may have been concealed after a painting was completed, and we can also find alterations that may assist in artist attribution.”

Besides being used as a technique to gauge authenticity, the data can also be used by restoration experts preserving priceless works of art. Some of the paintings they analyzed were in exhibition, but most were in the institute’s restoration lab, Gavrilov said.

For El-Youssef, who grew up in Windsor, the trip was a great learning experience.

“I’m from an engineering background, so I had to learn a little bit about art,” he said. “I hadn’t seen anything like that before, just the tools they had and the amount of work they put into it. There was a lot more science involved than I would have thought.”

Both students work in the lab of Roman Maev, a UWindsor physics professor who has made a career out of diagnostic imaging in a wide variety of industrial and health sciences applications. In an article recently published in the UK in The Daily Telegraph, Dr. Maev said he believes his techniques can revolutionise the world’s $40 billion art market by exposing the 15 per cent of works that are forged. Techniques like acoustic microscopy and high-resolution ultrasound imaging can be used to render 3D images of paintings, allowing scientists to build mathematical models that accurately predict the decay of ancient pieces of art, he said.

“Once we perfect this model, we’ll have a sort of DNA that can be used to accurately determine whether a painting is a fake,” Maev told the paper.

Gavrilov, who hopes to become an expert in applying thermography to other applications besides art works, also described his experience as “awesome” and was particularly fond of the other scientists he met.

“The people there were very welcoming,” said Gavrilov, who is currently working together with El-Youssef on a report on their findings from England. “They behaved like a big family.”