On November 18th, 2015 we learned about

Authenticating art with a DNA database

While some folks claim to be unable to draw even a straight line, plenty of painters posses the skill necessary to recreate renowned paintings of such quality they’re indistinguishable from the original work. In some cases new art is created that mimics the style and technique of a painter, opening the possibility that it’s a long-overlooked masterwork, finally discovered. For dead artists, neither situation is such a big deal. For art lovers, it’s a bit more convoluted, since each new painting accepted as genuine rewrites art history to a degree, changing the cultural value of the original body of work. When that cultural value also motivates monetary value, collectors become concerned, and have been looking for ways to fight back against forgeries in the art market, even involving two million dollars of new DNA encryption technology.

Finding the fakes

Authenticating a painting usually involves both forensic tools and expert opinions. For older paintings, the materials can provide clues like carbon-dating canvases or chemical analysis of pigments. If the materials aren’t the purported age of the painting, chances are it’s a fake (or at least mislabeled.) Experts are often asked to verify stylistic details in paintings, comparing the everything down to individual brush strokes to see if they match the craftsmanship seen in other pieces by the same artist. The assumption is that each artist paints slightly differently, leaving an unintentional signature in the image simply by how they apply the paint. The problem with these methods is that, especially for potential forgeries of newer paintings, collectors and museums are left with the subjective opinions of experts without many ways to verify their assertions. With multi-million dollar prices on some paintings, people want to be sure they’re buying the history they think they are.

To solve this, a group of developers and bioengineers at the Global Center for Innovation at the State University of New York are trying to create embedded security tags for art. Encrypted key codes would be recorded in secure databases, to be matched against the code found in the art being verified. Do ensure the code was sufficiently complex and durable, the team is doing the embedding with synthetic DNA. The DNA would be provided by the developers, not the artist to ensure the system remains closed, plus saves the artists the trouble and potential privacy risks of sharing their own DNA.

Constructive copying

Even with all this effort to stop forgeries in the commercial art market, there’s no doubt that people will continue to make copies of famous paintings and drawings. In fact, there’s a good chance they’ll be asked to do so, as this practice has been considered a standard teaching method for artists for hundreds of years. The close study of every detail can be very informative, as artists often feel they’re seeing through the original creator’s eyes. In this way, they have to consider nuances to a painting that you’d otherwise overlook. Some painters were even known to make copies of their own work, either for sale or simply for practice and refinement. The ethics of these copies only comes in to question when people try to present them as something their not. Most painters and collectors agree that a copy is fine as long as it’s labeled as such. It’s only when something is being presented as the most valuable original that we feel the need to start tagging them as such.

Source: Art Forgers Beware: DNA Could Thwart Fakes by Tom Mashberg, New York Times

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