The Application of Forensic Science and Technology in the Art Trade

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Portrait of Sir Théodore Turquet de Mayerne. Artist unknown (1645). Public Domain image, courtesy of the National Trust and Art UK.

By Joyce Townsend

The one-day seminar on The Application of Forensic Science and Technology in the Art Trade was organised by the Art Loss Register at Apothecaries’ Hall, London, on 14 November 2022. There is a reason for the choice of venue: Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, a name and an author familiar to those in the paintings specialism within conservation, was a physician who founded the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries and also set up a regulatory system for drugs, establishing the principles of quality control, and developed the profession that today is called pharmacy. It’s a profession that was always closely allied with artists’ materials: until the later 18th century, an apothecary’s shop was (at least in most European countries) the place to purchase many of them. Represented by his portrait, de Mayerne watched over those of us attending the seminar from across the hall and kept an eye on us during lunch and coffee breaks in the library too.

The day consisted of presentations and discussions with a number of excellent speakers from independent analytical companies, forensic science, independent conservation companies, product developers for the sector, the chair of Icon (the Institute of Conservation, based in the UK) and art dealers. I attended on behalf of IIC at the event whose audience of some 50 people had been invited to represent a spectrum ranging from collectors and dealers through to heritage scientists and directors of small companies creating tools, apps and databases targeted at the art trade and the conservation profession.

The art market does not impinge much on the daily life of conservation professionals in major museums but has more direct relevance to curators. Many bequests and gifts to institutions have come through the art trade at an earlier point in their lives, and purchases obviously do too. Large institutions command respect—in a way that individual collectors may not—and are the holders of knowledge about objects and expertise in their history and materiality. Collectors in the market today inhabit a world of significant financial transactions when artworks change hands but which is not heavily regulated compared to other financial sectors such as banking, investment products and insurance of high-value assets in which the transfer of comparably large sums of money is facilitated, protected, documented and overseen by regulatory bodies that set and maintain standards of conduct. The major international museums possess generations of in-house expertise on art technology, technical art history and the now less popular term “connoisseurship” as well as a wealth of comparative objects, professionally run databases, records and libraries. Those museums which are publicly funded have a commitment to publish and to share the results of research into their collections. The private collector is more isolated, and unlike Isaac Newton’s, a collector’s knowledge base is often not resting on the shoulders of giants but may well be in one head only. Collectors and buyers have to commission and pay for research into artworks.

The seminar aimed to explore the present situation in regards to due diligence for buyers and sellers in the art market; the level of trust and the variability in commercial analysis; research offered to those who seek to authenticate an artwork from the perspective of either seller/dealer or buyer; routes to greater transparency and understanding of the materiality of objects; and the related implications when the art changes hands. Objects in the market may have recently undergone conservation treatment or restoration that extend beyond improvement into deception, designed to obscure rather than clarify provenance. In other words, the debate during the seminar concerned caveat emptor (Latin for “let the buyer beware”) versus full disclosure.

Several three-legged stools were proposed to represent the nexus between academic opinion and selective use of evidence that can characterise the art market; some of the stools were kicked over, and other triads of expertise that should be brought in were proposed. Recommendations were made informally, and the Art Loss Register was identified as a body whose remit could logically be extended to fill lacunae in the present state of knowledge and to act as a repository for information.

The presentations given over the day were clear and thought-provoking. Instead of reviewing each in turn, I am listing soundbites and key messages to instigate private thought and perhaps discussion:

· Buyers often do more due diligence than the sellers or else duplicate the unshared investigations of the seller
· You wouldn’t hire an unqualified physician or attorney, but when it comes to art …
· There are no basic standards for evidence of authentication… not even a professional body for analysts
· Private collectors in general are not intelligent consumers and may be unable to distinguish the knowledge bases of conservators, conservation scientists, enthusiasts or dealers
· There is no forum for seeking out an analyst (conservation bodies are far better in this respect, for those who need to seek out a conservator, but don’t aim to cover the research side of the profession comprehensively)
· Some technical reports are unfortunate as regards what they don’t even discuss
· The seller’s condition report is a sales tool—even if a conservator did not write it as such, it can be redacted and reformatted by the seller
· Even today most condition reports for the sale of an artwork are not written by a conservation professional
· Should the author of a condition report expect to accept legal liability for the consequences arising from it?
· Should there be a register to lodge condition reports created for the first sale of a contemporary work?
· And a register for the conservator’s condition report prior to each sale?
· Would the creation of a digital fingerprint for a unique object make it more difficult or even impossible to fake the object or sell a replica of it?
· For any other form of research into an object, the first step is to define the research question, not simply to request an analysis’ or ‘a good image’
· There are two stages of interpretation for research into an object: the careful and, in effect, scientific evaluation of evidence, whether analytical or documentary, followed by its interpretation in context and using language the intended audience can understand (which is how museums share their knowledge with the public and with art professionals)
· Lost and stolen objects figure in databases, but recovered ones do not
· High-resolution images that are standardised, colour corrected and inter-comparable bring materiality to the owner’s or seller’s screen
· Is every catalogue raisonné created equal, and are all equally trustworthy?

De Mayerne, active in the earlier 17th century, improved and, to a significant extent, codified his profession; is the art market today, which underpins the collections and movable heritage we all care for and about, much more advanced than were the apothecaries when he set out to make things better?


Dr Joyce Townsend is senior conservation scientist at Tate, where she has carried out research for over 30 years on the identification and deterioration of British artists' materials, working closely with numerous conservator colleagues. She has written many publications on the techniques and processes of artists active from the 16th to the 20th centuries. She has been IIC Director of Publications since 2009 and editor for most recent IIC congresses.

(Read the review in the February-March 2023 "News in Conservation" Issue 94, p. 40-43)

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De Mayerne, active in the earlier 17th century, improved and, to a significant extent, codified his profession; is the art market today, which underpins the collections and movable heritage we all care for and about, much more advanced than were the apothecaries when he set out to make things better?
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