The world’s greatest artworks could one day be protected from forgers by a unique ‘chemical fingerprinting’ technique developed in Western Australia.
The University of Western Australia last week unveiled the first work to be treated with the encoding technology – a painting by Freddie Timms from the Warmun community in the Kimberley.
It took forensic chemist Rachel Green five years to develop the technology, which will hopefully revolutionise the art world, with millions of dollars lost to fraudsters every year.
“We can custom-make the ‘signature’ to whatever is needed by the artist or the gallery,” Ms Green says.
“We can make it unique to the artist, the art centre or to the date of the painting. The one we have done for Freddie Timms will be the signature for every work he’ll do throughout his whole life.”
Crucially, the chemical fingerprint can be added retrospectively, so every work of art can be potentially protected from fraud.
“We could protect a Van Gogh or a Da Vinci. In Freddie’s case the chemical cocktail was added to his paint, but it can be added via a chemical spray on the front or back of a canvas.”
The fingerprint is invisible and will not mark a painting in any way. Even so, Ms Green admits that the team at the Centre for Forensic Science may have a challenge convincing traditionalists.
“There are people in the industry who don’t really understand the science… They don’t grasp how it works. It took years of trial and error to understand the chemistry of the materials we were working with and I can say a resounding ‘no’ to anyone who thinks it damages the painting.
“It’s also a very easy process for the artists to use because we have made sure that it was developed that way.”
The technology is adapted from a laser sampling technique developed by Ms Green’s doctoral supervisor, Professor John Watling, to trace stolen gold and diamonds back to their origins.
“We use the laser system to determine the painting’s trace elements and we alter that trace element signature, making it unique. All we need is a sample that’s one-tenth of a millimetre – or, for practical purposes, half the size of a pinhead – from the side of the canvas.”
UWA is patenting the process and Ms Green hopes the enormous support she has had from Indigenous arts centres mean it will have an impact on fraudsters who prey on Indigenous artists.
“A lot of people don’t appreciate the enormous significance of Indigenous art. There is so much fraud going on in the industry, so we are protecting Australia’s cultural heritage.”
She believes encoding could also help stamp out the practice of ‘carpet-bagging’, where Indigenous artists are made to churn out paintings and paid a fraction of their value.
“While it can’t directly stop carpet-bagging, if all legitimately produced Indigenous art was encoded then the value of the uncoded works would go down and there would be far less incentive for the artists and the carpetbaggers,” she says.
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