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New software to expose art forgeries

22 November 2004

The New Scientist reports that a new computer program has just been launched which can reveal forgeries by checking whether two paintings are by the same artist.

The program, which was developed by a team based at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, tests patterns of individual marks made by an artist’s hand. It needs no paint samples, relying instead on digital photographs which are scanned and analysed by the new software. The program then looks for statistical patterns in the digital image, based on the pressure, orientation or length of the brush stroke and the evenness of the paint.

When these characteristics are plotted in three-dimensions, the paintings of one artist will lie in a tight cluster of ‘signature’ coordinates, while the works of another artist will cluster elsewhere on the plot. Comparing a suspected forgery with a genuine painting can therefore help identify it as authentic or fake.

Project lead Hany Farid and his colleagues digitally analysed a series of eight drawings by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel and five drawings that are known to be imitations of his style. When they plotted the points from the drawings, the authentic points lay close together within a ball, while the fake points all lay outside of the ball.

The team also examined the Italian painter Pietro Perugino's 'Madonna with Child', painted around 1500. Many experts believe that Perugino's students, which included Raphael, contributed to the painting. The computer analysis shows that three of the six heads in the painting were probably the work of one artist, perhaps Perugino himself, while the other heads were painted by three different people.

However, it must be said that this technique will only be of use in assessing pre-Modern artworks. In the 20th century, much artistic output has been fabricated by teams of people working on behalf of well-known artists, and this is an accepted part of contemporary art practice.

Farid notes that the technique will not replace the knowledge of the traditional experts: “Art historians can do things that we can’t - they look especially at the ear, hand and feet for evidence. But we can look at patterns in fine detail that our brains wouldn’t see,” he says.

Farid believes that combining art historians’ expertise with digital technology could be the best way to sort the forgeries from the originals.

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