Microbes that can Authenticate Old Masters (?)

July 8 2020

Image of Microbes that can Authenticate Old Masters (?)

Picture: DailyStar.com

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

I missed this rather bizarre news story a few weeks ago, do forgive me. A team of scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are developing a system to test the microbes found on artworks in order to help prove their authenticity. 

As the Institute's own press release states:

Genetics scientists with the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), collaborating with the Leonardo da Vinci DNA Project and supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, say identifying and managing communities of microbes on art may offer museums and collectors a new way to stem the deterioration of priceless possessions, and to unmask counterfeits in the $60 billion a year art market.

In the art world context, studying microbes clinging to the surface of a work of art may help confirm its geographic origin and authenticity or identify counterfeits.

It seems that this project is still in its early days and there would be enormous hurdles to overcome before a system has proven itself to be worthy enough to be relied upon. Scientific testing on pigments has been a part of dating artworks for a long period of time, of course. There are several existing ways to test whether an artwork contains materials that are later than the work purports to be.

More interesting is the claim that:

"Many Renaissance artists used their own biological material in their artwork," [Microbiologist Manolito Torralba] told AFP. "Leonardo and others were very known for using their own saliva and some used their own blood"

It is interesting to imagine a day when authorship debates would be settled by microbial tests, but, I think we are probably a long long way away from that. It is obvious though that the ultimate goal of this scientific route is to pin down a process which will allow a computer to decide who painted what.

Sure, such a test might provide some interesting results for works that came out of Rubens's Studio, for example. However, for this to be reliable one would have to have an enormous sample size. In other words it would only be useful if samples were obtained by the hundreds (if not thousands) of paintings by Rubens's hand and the many studio, workshop, period and non-period copies. Organising such an enterprise would also require a truly Herculean effort.

Until then, training the human eye through repeated experience, supplemented by thorough scholarship, is still essential.

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