Neutron Beams Used to Expose Art Forgers

VIENNA, Austria, March 11, 2005 (ENS) - The United Nations agency that usually works to prevent nuclear smuggling has taken on the task of helping countries to crack down on the illegal trade in counterfeit art using nuclear technology that shoots a beam of sub-atomic particles through a work of art. "Even the most minute analytical quantities can be traced safely and accurately," says the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The project brings museum conservators, analytical researchers and law enforcement officers together to apply nuclear analytical applications to detect bogus or fake works of art.

Art fraud and the black market trade in cultural objects is a major source of international crime, according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

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A neutron beam is used to determine the size and shape of polymer patterns on a silicon wafer. (Photo courtesy NIST)
In an effort to catch the criminals, the IAEA has teamed up with experts from France's Louvre museum and 14 other countries across Europe, South America, Africa and Asia to use nuclear science to identify authentic artworks from phonies.

The IAEA project begins this year to extend the use of nuclear analysis to Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, China, Malaysia, Syria, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Croatia and Hungary, with technical assistance from France, Germany, Greece, and Poland.

IAEA chemist Matthias Rossbach, said the project would boost these countries abilities to detect illegal export of objects protected by international laws and pillaged from archaeological sites. He said law enforcement personnel, for example, could use portable elemental analysers at borders to help combat art trafficking.

It is expected that extending this technology to developing countries will help in the safe-keeping, conservation and restoration of valuable national heritage works of art.

Some of the techniques involve shooting a beam of neutrons or protons at a sample area of the artwork. The analysis made possible by this technique reveals a wealth of information, including the trace elements present, which help scientists to identify the object´s origin and age without causing any damage, the IAEA says.

The IAEA gives the example of a portrait of Renaissance French potter Bernard Palissy that was revealed as a fake, after nuclear analysis performed at the Louvre exposed that the paint from the artist's signature was painted in two centuries after Palissy's death.

The sensitive analysis can also shed light on the lives of ancient cultures.

Analysis of a statue of an Ishtar goddess discovered near Babylon, for example, showed that the figurine´s eyes and navel were fashioned with the most ancient rubies found in the Middle East, rather than red glass or garnets as previously thought.

The analysis provided evidence of a previously unknown gem trade route between South-East Asia and Mesopotamia during the 1st century BC.

According to Interpol, the illicit trade in art and cultural objects is sustained by the demand from the art market, the opening of borders, improvements in transport systems and the political instability of some countries.