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Simple Science Could Have Caught Massive Forgery

Faking art: Almost the world's oldest profession. This painting was long attributed to Goya but turns out to have been faked by one of his wannabes, Eugenic Lucas. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Last Thursday September 1, Germany’s biggest art forgery case in recent history hit the courts.

Four people stand accused of making €16 million from 14 forgeries sold around the world as paintings by 20th century artists such as Max Ernst and Max Pechstein.

One of the defendants is the granddaughter of a Germany business tycoon by the name of Werner Jäger. He died in 1992, and by 2001 the foursome is accused of selling the fakes, apparently claiming they came from Jäger’s extensive art collection. One of the defendants is accused of painting the forgeries.

Every court case has at least one quirky fact up its sleeve, and here it’s that the actor Steve Martin bought one of the fakes (although he sold it again in 2006).

Chemistry World

‘s Ned Stafford has just written a nice science take on the forgeries, explaining that if scientists had had a chance to scan the fakes, they could have easily kept buyers from being duped.
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Conservation Scientists Get Into The Vibe

Raman was used to identify the arsenic-based pigment on this Egyptian mask. Credit: Peter Vandenabeele

This week some 120 conservation researchers are facing the tragic hardship that comes from spending a week in Parma, Italy, where there is a conference called “Raman in art and archeology.”

This is not a conference about art made from tasty Japanese noodles. (That’s Ramen, silly!)

But if you caught the gratuitous pun in my headline, then you probably already know that Raman spectroscopy is an analytical technology that helps scientists study the vibrations and rotations that occur within molecules. Conservation scientists get giddy about Raman for a bunch or reasons, Peter Vandenabeele, an organizer of the conference, told me:

First: Raman is not picky about art. Which is to say that the technique can be used to study the chemical make-up of jewelry, oil paintings, Egyptian burial masks, glass, Mayan wall paintings… you get the picture.

Second: Portable Raman spectroscopy equipment is non-invasive, so it doesn’t hurt artwork. Scientists head to a museum, and shine low frequency laser light at a painting or sculpture which has mysterious molecular components that they want to know more about—such as a pigment that gives artwork brilliant color, or a pigment that is fading with time.
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Banking On A Bunker To Save Britain’s Film

Cellulose nitrate degradation that the BFI aims to avoid with their new archive. Credit: BFI

If I had to marry an inanimate object, I would not choose the Berlin Wall as Eija-Riitta has, but I might be tempted by a bunker, possibly the Boros bunker, whose dark history has been reclaimed by great art.

So you can imagine that I was super interested in a recent Guardian

article about a new archive for the British Film Institute, which will be located on top of the site of an old nuclear bunker.

The BFI is facing what’s already a become a major problem for many who possess collections of early cinema: How do you keep 450,000 cans of film from breaking down, particularly when the film is made of cellulose nitrate, a plastic not known for its longevity?

When cellulose nitrate breaks down, it causes the release of nitric acid, which can accelerate degradation in nearby film. Eventually all the degradation results in a gooey or powdery mess where there was once a fantastic film.

The BFI’s spokesperson Brian Robinson told me that in the new archive, fragile film will be kept at -5 C, which is “down a notch” from the previous temperature (3-4 C) that the film was stored at. According to studies done at the BFI, Robinson says that the cellulose nitrate degradation will “be arrested.”

I can’t imagine that it’s ever possible to completely arrest degradation, but I’m guessing the drop in temperature seriously decreases the rate of chemical breakdown.

Finally, Robinson says the new £12 million facility will be well-ventilated, which I presume will suck away any amount of nitric acid that has managed to percolate off the valuable film.

A Visit To The Opificio, Italy’s Primary Restoration Lab

An Opificio restorer working on a Vasari panel painting. © Sarah Everts.

Italy has no shortage of art, and when that art needs a face-lift, it takes a trip to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro, the country’s national restoration laboratory.

Located in an elegant old stable in Florence, the Opificio is like a spa for cultural heritage artifacts, where paintings, frescoes and sculptures go for age-extending treatments.

When I visited, Cecilia Frosinini, an art historian and the Opificio’s director of mural paintings, was kind enough to give me a tour.

As we wandered through the extensive labs, dozens of restorers were working on a wide variety of pieces including Renaissance paintings sent from Budapest for anti-aging therapy, ceramic sculptures, water-damaged frescoes and a wooden statue of Christ that had been painted to look like bronze during an era when bronze was popular but too expensive for some budgets.

Looks like bronze but it's actually wood. © Sarah Everts

The Opificio has also been recently involved in everything from using ultraviolet light to bring out cool, hidden details in Giotto paintings to the restoration of Santa Croce Basilica’s famous frescoes.

Like many great things in Florence, the Opificio has its root with the city’s famous Medici family. The first half the Opificio’s Italian name translates to “workshop of semi precious stones.” And as the name suggests, the Medicis founded the Opificio in 1580s to produce furniture decorated with semi precious stones, Frosinini told me.

Time passed and the workshop began restoring their own pieces. By the 19th century, art made from other materials such ceramic, marble and jewelry, was also being restored, she added.
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The Peculiar Life Of The Dead Sea Scrolls

A Dead Sea Scroll containing Psalms text. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

After spending more than two thousand years in peaceful hibernation, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) have had a rough six decades. Discovered in several dry caves near the Dead Sea from 1947 through 1956, the texts experienced a series of travel and conservation adventures that border on mishandling, says Ira Rabin, a staff scientist at Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM).

Rabin has published several scientific papers on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have historical and religious importance because they contain early versions of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament as well as other important Jewish writings. I recently met Rabin at a cafe in Berlin, where she described to me the potpourri of treatments that these texts—most of which are written on animal skin parchment–have received since their discovery.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been covered in castor oil and glycerin as well as plastic consolidants (the latter of which is particularly unwise because no plastic stays in good shape for more than a few decades). Other treatments include Fuller’s Earth, a clay-like material, and being attached to glass plates using adhesive tape.
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Are Crop Circles Made By Microwaves?

Made by microwaves? Credit: Newscom.

If you believe that crop circles are a form of art made by rogue (human) sculptors, then you’ll probably want to read Richard Taylor‘s fascinating piece in Physics World about the science of making these curious farmland imprints.

If you can’t get past the PW paywall, check out my column in this week’s Newscripts about his quirky work on crop circle science.

In particular, Taylor thinks artists are using hand-held microwave magnetrons (I kid you not!) to make modern-day crop circles and he comes up with a pretty convincing argument to back up his sci-fi-sounding theory.

Conspiracy theorists may not buy Taylor’s logic since it doesn’t involve aliens (they’ve already accused Taylor of being in cahoots with US, UK and German spy agencies). But I like the microwave theory as much as the one proposed by Australian’s attorney general: that stoned wallabies are making crop circles in poppy fields down under.

The PEG In Sweden’s Vasa Warship

The Vasa Warship, stuffed with PEG. Credit: Peter Isotalo.

The vessel took four years to build and was armed with the highest tech weaponry available in 17th-century Sweden, but the four-story, top-heavy Vasa warship sunk before it managed to sail a nautical mile out of Stockholm’s harbor. That was 1628.

When the ship was pulled out of the water 333 years later in 1961, archeologists found all sorts of well-preserved goodies on board, as well as a hull in excellent shape. The wood had mostly managed to avoid two major evils: Degradation via wood worms (probably because the ship had sunk when it was still brand new) and degradation via microbes (the quirky bacteria that could survive in Stockholm’s particularly polluted harbor weren’t much interested in snacking on wood).

Letting the boat dry out would have been a death sentence for the gigantic artifact, since water-logged wood tends to shrink and warp as the water evaporates away, explains Martin Nordvig Mortensen, a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, who is studying the degradation of the Vasa’s wood. (The vessel is located in Stockholm at the Vasa Museum).

Instead of letting the boat dry out, conservators sprayed the Vasa with a polymer called polyethylene glycol (PEG) until the ship was entirely saturated. (This took 17 years of spraying!) Since PEG doesn’t evaporate away upon drying, the wood is thus stabilized against warping. (Incidentally PEG has a curious spectrum of other applications, such as in theater smoke, toothpaste, antifreeze and personal lubricant.)
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Dredging Up A Dredge In The Yukon

Dawson City, Yukon. Credit: Sarah Everts.

When we embarked on what was possibly a harebrained, 406 km-long vacation canoe trip along the Yukon River in Northern Canada, I wasn’t particularly expecting to encounter a conservation site.

I was wrong: Our final destination on the Yukon River was Dawson City, the site of the Klondike gold rush in 1896. By 1898 the city had swelled to 40,000 people. Now there are now about 1000 inhabitants left and many abandoned turn-of-the-century buildings still left to restore.

Dredge No. 4. Credit: Parks Canada

But actually the most impressive conservation site was that of Dredge No. 4, a lackluster name for a colossal machine built in 1912 to sift gold out of the gravel, using the same principle as the folks who panned for the precious metal in streams–albeit at a rather larger scale.

The monster Dredge No. 4 is 8 stories high and 2/3 the area of a football field.

Since gold is 19 times heavier than water, the easiest way to separate gold from gravel is to dig up some ground, put it in a bowl of any size, shake everything back and forth in water and wait for the gold to sink to the very bottom of the wet mixture by means of gravity. Then you pour off the water and swipe off the top layer of gravel and presto there’s your gold nugget at the bottom of the bowl (or in my case, a single, barely visible flake of gold that garnered a rather sympathetic look from the teacher when I took a brief gold panning course).
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A Short Summer Sabbatical

A painting by Daphne Mennell called Spirit Lake, sort of. Courtesy of the artist.

This post comes from Whitehorse, in the Yukon (that’s in Canada, folks), where I’m about to embark on a two-week, 400-km canoe trip along an old gold rush route to Dawson City.

This means Artful Science will have a two week hiatus while I avoid getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and bears.

I thought I’d say au revoir with an image from Yukon-based artist, Daphne Mennell.

See y’all in August!

Plastics Denial Syndrome

Dutch artist Madeleine Berkhemer uses stockings in her art, which are made of nylon and spandex. Photo Courtesy of Berkhemer.

Sometime during the 1960s, artists en masse began using plastics to make art–a trend that continues today.

The problem is that many plastic polymers have a shelf life of just a decade or so, after which they begin to crumble or crack. Consider an old rubber band or a plastic bottle left out in the sun.

And just as bisphenol A leaches out of baby bottles and into the surrounding liquid, many of the components of plastic-based art seep out of the work, causing all sorts of unpleasant consequences (details below).

Furthermore, the short lifespan of plastic art is at odds with the fact that most museums want to buy art that lasts centuries or at least decades… not years.

Yet in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, just as plastic sculptures and designer furniture were pouring in to museum and gallery collections, staff conservators were collectively sticking their heads in the sand about the inherent vulnerability of these objects… I mean, even though plastics have short lifespans, there are ways to extend them. But conservators weren’t acknowledging that plastics were problematic.

It’s come to be known as “the plastics denial syndrome” and thankfully it’s now over, says Yvonne Shashoua, a conservation scientist at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. Shashoua features heavily in an article I just wrote about how plastics are a serious problem child for museum staff and what can be done to improve some pretty impressive bad behavior.

Yvonne Shashoua cares for a 1970s crash test dummy that is literally weeping plasticizer. Photo Courtesy of Shashoua.

Case in point: the phthalate plasticizer added to make PVC (polyvinyl chloride) maleable has a tendency to leach out, so much so that small pools of the plasticizer collect in and around the art. These plasticizer puddles are not precisely aesthetically pleasing, they attract dust and actually the loss of the plasticizer destabilizes the plastic making it vulnerable to cracking.

Then there’s this more nepharious example: Acidic gases percolate away from plastic objects made of cellulose acetate and then corrode nearby metals and textiles. For this reason conservators call cellulose acetate “the malignant plastic.”

Cases like these forced conservators to take the degradation of plastics seriously. Check out the longer article to find out what museum staff are now doing to keep plastic art and artifacts alive and as well-behaved as possible.

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