Beyond the basics: A systematic approach for comprehensive analysis of organic materials in Asian lacquers

User menu

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Michael R. Schilling; Arlen Heginbotham; Henk van Keulen; Mike Szelewski;


Studies in Conservation, Volume 61, Number sup3, p.3-27 (2016)


Identification of organic materials in Asian lacquers presents many challenges due to their complex formulations and the limited solubility of the main component, which is catechol-rich sap from three species of Anacardiaceae trees that crosslinks to form a hard film. Pyrolysis-gas chromatography–mass spectrometry with thermally assisted hydrolysis and methylation using tetramethylammonium hydroxide (THM-Py-GC–MS) has been shown to produce a wide range of marker compounds useful for identifying the catechol components and lacquer additives such as drying oils, natural resins, proteins, starch, and colorants. However, interpreting the test results is quite challenging because of the sheer number of compounds produced by pyrolysis and the wide range of materials that have been used in traditional Asian lacquer formulations. An expert system developed by scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute and conservators at the J. Paul Getty Museum for a workshop entitled ‘Recent Advances In Characterizing Asian Lacquers’ (RAdICAL) utilizes software tools to overcome challenges in data analysis and marker compound interpretation, making it possible for even relative newcomers to Py-GC–MS to identify materials in lacquered objects systematically. Automated Mass spectral Deconvolution and Identification System (AMDIS), a freeware program developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), systematizes GC–MS data analysis by rapidly deconvoluting chromatograms, identifying individual peaks, and then searching the results against a user library of marker compounds, producing a simple report that lists the names, retention indices, and peak areas for all the compounds identified in the sample. The authors have produced a custom RAdICAL compound library, compiled from in-house studies of reference samples made from mixtures of raw or processed lacquer mixed with additives, and supplemented by published work from other researchers. The lists include numerous oxidation products of the alkyl- and alkenyl-substituted catechols, and alkyl- and alkenyl-substituted benzenes in the tree saps identified in studies of aged lacquer replicas, many of which have diagnostic purposes. A specialized Excel workbook developed for RAdICAL can import the AMDIS report, organize the marker compound results by class of artists’ materials, and perform automatic calculations to display sorted information for each material in specialized diagnostic graphs. Expert knowledge relating raw materials to their associated marker compounds, obtained from in-house research, publications and personal communications has been embedded into the individual Excel worksheets. This aids users of the workbook in verifying the presence or absence of materials in their lacquer samples, based on the marker compound distributions. All of the final results are presented in a pre-formatted comprehensive analytical report. Extensive lists of analytical data for marker compounds from the major classes of organic additives used in Asian lacquer formulations provide researchers the information needed to identify these markers in unknown lacquer samples. As other researchers contribute marker compound information for further lacquer materials and the knowledge for interpreting them, the capabilities of the RAdICAL expert system will continue to expand.