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9 Ways Science Helps Catch Counterfeit Art

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Approximately $64 billion is spent on art every year. It’s estimated that anywhere from 2 to 50 percent of those pieces out there are counterfeits. Here's how experts spot the fakes.

1. TAKE A CRACK AT READING THE CRAQUELURE.

Craquelure—the web of fine cracks on old paintings—is unique to every work of art. For centuries, forgers faked the phenomenon by splintering their paintings with solvents, pencil sketches, formaldehyde, and frozen beeswax. (One time, the forger Han van Meegeren aged a fake Vermeer by baking it in a pizza oven.) Today, many museums keep a thorough record of what a painting’s cracks look like, and scientists use Reflectance Transformation Imaging to create a “topographic map” of the original's cracked surface [PDF].

2. POINT OUT FAKES WITH NUCLEAR FALLOUT.

There were approximately 2000 nuclear bomb tests between 1945 and the Nuclear Test Ban treaty in 1963. Those explosions soaked our planet in radioactive isotopes—particularly cesium-137, carbon-14, and strontium-90—and contaminated the world’s soil, including the flax and linseed oil used in modern paint. The result? Most paintings created after 1945 contain these isotopes. With the help of a mass spectrometer, scientists can examine a painting to see if it has too many of these radioactive atoms. The technique proved that one of Peggy Guggenheim’s favorite paintings, an abstract piece attributed to Fernand Léger and supposedly painted in 1913, was actually made years after Leger’s 1955 death.

3. REMEMBER THAT TREE RINGS DON'T LIE.

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Painters such as Rembrandt and Holbein loved painting on wooden panels. Like all things wooden, those panels contain tree rings, and experts can examine those rings—a method called dendrochronology [PDF]—to double-check the work’s authenticity. (How? Over periods of nice weather, trees grow thick and healthy rings. When weather is rough, rings thin out. Experts can compare and match the pattern of weak/healthy rings to known tree samples to determine the wood's age and origin.)

4. PEEL BACK THE LAYERS WITH INFRARED RADIATION.

Painters usually draw sketches on the canvas before getting to work. Experts can see these covered-up scribbles with infrared reflectography, a technique that fires wavelengths of radiation into the artwork to reveal what's hiding under coats of paint. In 1954, art historians discovered a second copy of Francesco Francia’s The Virgin and the Child with an Angel. Decades of controversy soon followed, with the general consensus being that the copy in London’s National Gallery was a 19th century forgery and the version now in the Carnegie Museum of Art was the real one. In 2009, infrared reflectograms helped pinpoint the fake: The forger had sketched the National Gallery's painting with graphite, a material that wasn’t available during Francia’s lifetime.

5. SEE THROUGH THE SURFACE WITH AN X-RAY.

Even traditional x-rays can unearth a painting’s hidden underbelly. For years, curators at the Fogg Art Museum believed their Portrait of a Woman was made by the great Francisco de Goya. But in 1954, an x-ray revealed that a different portrait was hiding beneath the surface! More analysis showed that the buried painting contained zinc white paint—a pigment that didn’t exist when Goya was alive. Busted.

6. LOOK FOR FISHY PIGMENTS WITH LASERS.

In 1923, the forger Han van Meegeren successfully passed his fake The Laughing Cavalier off as a work by the 17th century Dutch portraitist Frans Hals. Experts later realized they had been duped when, using x-ray diffraction, they discovered the painting was dabbed with synthetic ultramarine paint, a pigment invented 162 years after Hals died [PDF]. Today, art historians use Raman spectroscopy to detect these out-of-date pigments. (To oversimplify the process, the technique involves firing lasers at a pigment. As light scatters off the paint, the machine picks up each pigment's unique chemical fingerprint.)

7. SPOT FRAUDS WITH UV LIGHT.

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In 1989, the FBI arrested Robert Trotter for forging the works of 19th century American still life painter John Haberle. The Feds nailed Trotter thanks to good old fashioned UV light [PDF]. That's because a shower of UV light makes the varnish on old paintings shine. Newer paintings, however, don’t fluoresce as much, and they often emit an uncanny uniform glow. Trotter had coated his fakes with a copal varnish, which, under UV light, created a sheen that looked good to an amateur, but to a professional was too consistent for a 100-year-old painting.

8. EMBRACE YOUR INNER SHERLOCK HOLMES.

Before we had fancy machines to catch fakes, curators used the Morelli method. Giovanni Morelli was a 19th century Italian art critic who had a knack for authenticating paintings with his naked eye. He knew that artists followed formulas when painting tiny details such as ears, eyes, or fingernails, and he believed if an art critic memorized an artist’s habits for painting these body parts, he or she could determine who held the brush. (Morelli was a doctor by training and believed identifying art through trifling details was parallel to diagnosing a disease.) Incidentally, Morelli knew Arthur Conan Doyle’s uncle, and it’s possible that his ability to pinpoint tiny telltale clues inspired Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

9. DON'T FORGET: TYPOS TELL ALL.

For 17 years, Shaun Greenhalgh forged everything from fake Gauguin sculptures to 3300-year-old Egyptian statues in his backyard shed, aging his “ancient” artworks with tea and clay. He fooled countless art lovers and museums until 2006, when Scotland Yard came knocking. His big mistake? Experts at the British museum discovered three of his cuneiform scripts were littered with spelling mistakes. (To Greenhalgh’s credit, the Victoria and Albert Museum was so impressed with his forgeries they included his fake works in an exhibition in 2010.)

BONUS: ONE GREAT PARTY FACT ABOUT MICHELANGELO

Did you know that Michelangelo started his career as an art forger? In 1496, the 20-year-old forged the sculpture of a centuries-old sleeping Cupid, buried it in acidic dirt to make it look old, and sold it as an “antiquity.” He pulled off the charade so well that when the buyer realized it was a fake, he wasn’t even that mad: Michelangelo kept his money and news of the fraud catapulted him to fame.

Reporting by Sam McPheeters, Lucas Reilly, and Jennifer M. Wood.

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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
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The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed
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The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

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10 Fun Facts About Play-Doh
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As any Play-Doh aficionado knows, September 16th is National Play-Doh Day! Let's pay tribute to your favorite modeling clay with some fun facts about the childhood play staple that began life as a cleaning product.

1. IT WAS FIRST SOLD AS WALLPAPER CLEANER.

Before kids were playing with Play-Doh, their parents were using it to remove soot and dirt from their wall coverings by simply rolling the wad of goop across the surface.

2. IF IT WEREN'T FOR CAPTAIN KANGAROO, PLAY-DOH MIGHT NEVER HAVE TAKEN OFF.

When it was just a fledgling company with no advertising budget, inventor Joe McVicker talked his way in to visit Bob Keeshan, a.k.a Captain Kangaroo. Although the company couldn’t pay the show outright, McVicker offered them two percent of Play-Doh sales for featuring the product once a week. Keeshan loved the compound and began featuring it three times weekly.

3. MORE THAN 3 BILLION CANS OF PLAY-DOH HAVE BEEN SOLD.

Since 1956, more than 3 billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold. That’s enough to reach the Moon and back a total of three times. (Not bad for a wallpaper cleaner.)

4. IT USED TO COME IN JUST ONE COLOR.

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Back when it was still a household product, Play-Doh came in just one dud of a color: off-white. When it hit stores as a toy in the 1950s, red, blue, and yellow were added. These days, Play-Doh comes in nearly every color of the rainbow—more than 50 in total—but a consumer poll revealed that fans' favorite colors are Rose Red, Purple Paradise, Garden Green, and Blue Lagoon.

5. FOR QUITE SOME TIME, DR. TIEN LIU HAD A JOB SKILL NO ONE ELSE IN THE WORLD COULD CLAIM: PLAY-DOH EXPERT.

Dr. Tien Liu helped perfect the Play-Doh formula for the original company, Rainbow Crafts, and stayed on as a Play-Doh Expert when the modeling compound was purchased by Kenner and then Hasbro.

6. YOU CAN SMELL LIKE PLAY-DOH.

Want to smell like Play-Doh? You can! To commemorate the compound’s 50th anniversary, Demeter Fragrance Library worked with Hasbro to make a Play-Doh fragrance, which was developed for “highly-creative people, who seek a whimsical scent reminiscent of their childhood.”

7. HASBRO RECENTLY TRADEMARKED THE SCENT.

Anyone who has ever popped open a fresh can of Play-Doh knows that there’s something extremely distinctive about the smell. It’s so distinctive that, in early 2017, Hasbro filed for federal protection in order to trademark the scent, which the company describes as “a unique scent formed through the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.”

8. IT CAN CREATE A PRETTY ACCURATE FINGERPRINT.

When biometric scanners were a bit more primitive, people discovered that you could make a mold of a person’s finger, then squish Play-Doh in the mold to make a replica of the finger that would actually fool fingerprint scanners. Back in 2005, it was estimated that Play-Doh could actually fool 90 percent of all fingerprint scanners. But technology has advanced a lot since then, so don’t go getting any funny ideas. Today's more sophisticated systems aren’t so easily tricked by the doughy stuff.

9. IT HOLDS A PLACE IN THE NATIONAL TOY HALL OF FAME.

Unsurprisingly, Play-Doh holds a coveted place in the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. It was inducted in 1998. According to the Hall of Fame, “recent estimates say that kids have played with 700 million pounds of Play-Doh."

10. YOU CAN TURN YOUR PLAY-DOH CREATIONS INTO ANIMATED CHARACTERS.

While Play-Doh may be a classic toy, it got a state-of-the-art upgrade in 2016, when Hasbro launched Touch Shape to Life Studio, an app that lets kids turn their Play-Doh creations into animated characters.

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