New technologies quickly come to the market and we can no more imagine our life without them. The art field is not an exception. had the privilege to talk to the art historian and curator, ICRA (International Catalogue Raisonné Association) founding member and the expert in modern and contemporary Italian art, Dr. Sharon Hecker, on the issues of authenticity - whether new technologies are assistants or competitors to the experienced human authenticators?

- Which technological solutions are currently in the toolkit of authenticator?

Sharon Hecker: In order to understand the technological “tools” of authentication, one must first take a look back in time when they did not exist. Although forgeries have always existed, there really was no official role of “authenticators” in the past, nor was the question of work’s authenticity so publicly scrutinized. With the beginning of art history as a field, different schools of thought began to arise regarding how to recognize if an artwork is actually made by the artist in question. One approach became loosely known as ‘connoisseurship’, and it involved the trained and experience naked eye of the expert. It remained quite popular and today we still use the eye and our experience with an artist’s work as a crucial source of information. Of course, it is more than that, as we bring with us a great deal of experience with the artist’s practice. Many people believe that connoisseurship is still the best way, but in some cases, it has proven to be problematic or not always convincing in a legal setting, where two experts present their interpretations of visual stylistic evidence for or against authenticity.

As art historians, we are trained to look closely at artworks, but some peoples’ eyes are better than other at spotting things, and some specialists have deeper knowledge of an artist than others. Some interpretations of visual data can be seen as subjective, or superficial, or incomplete. The help of technology can be immense. Conservation science was born as a field after World War II. Among many other things, conservation scientists can digitally enlarge details to be seen on a scale much bigger than the naked eye, and that can prove to be extremely useful. Other times, a cleaning can reveal new evidence. Today, authenticators’ technological toolkit has expanded mostly in the province of scientific examinations, where new kinds of organic and inorganic testing can add to our art historical knowledge and, at times, challenge or confirm what our naked eye can see or determine to be convincing visual evidence.

Technology can also enhance archival research. Archival research has always existed as well, and art historians are trained in this kind of specific work according to their field of specialty. Provenance research, for example, benefits immensely today from the internet and the continued digitalization of so many images, archives, auction catalogue registers, exhibition catalogues, journals, bills of sales, wills and testaments, and even personal diaries and letters. We can find so many more things than we once could, and with much greater speed and ease.


- Are the available technological solutions complementary (due to limitations to the scope of applicability) or is there any solution that covers the most of it (is the most accurate)?

Sharon Hecker: Ideally, they should be complementary, and ideally the information from each of these areas should agrees. None, however, is usually enough alone, although each case is different. For example, Nazi looted art is usually not about determining a work’s authenticity (although there are some exceptions), thus scientific analysis would not be useful, nor would connoisseurship. But provenance research is key to prove a chain of ownership and find out whether a work was taken from a Jewish owner. Colonial looting of ancient art works along these lines as well. Many unexpected connections can come up from deep googling and scouring online documents, although there are also archival searches that must be done in person and research in difficult archives is a true art. You have to know where to look, and what to look for. It is important also to realize that not all Nazi looted art has been found and not all Nazi looters have been researched. Belgian looting during the war, for example, is just in the beginning stages of research.

In other cases, such as an Old Master’s painting that appears with no provenance (the so-called ‘sleeper’ or a work found in an attic), scientific examination of the canvas weave and make of the canvas, dating of the panel (if it is in wood), pigment analysis to see if the paint existed in the artist’s time, and many other kinds of testing done by conservation scientists can be extremely useful. However, there are also problems with using this information as “proof” of authenticity or forgery since there can be legitimately made lifetime copies made by others, as well as forgeries made during an artist’s lifetime, and forgeries that craftily use old materials. Sometimes you can identify all the materials scientifically, but you need to know if the artist ever actually used them!

Sometimes a historian of techniques needs to be involved. To give one example, if there is a sculpture that seems to be cast in a technique that did not exist in the artist’s lifetime, or a scientific analysis reveals a chemical patina that was only invented after the artist’s death. But in the case of sculpture this might be a legally made posthumous cast or a nineteenth-century copy of a Renaissance sculpture, so again one must be very careful when drawing conclusions. One also cannot take documentation at face value: documentation needs to be sometimes put to scientific testing as it can be falsified.


- What is still in the area of responsibility/capabilities of a human authenticator?

Sharon Hecker: I think all areas are still tied to a human authenticator—whatever information is received needs to be vetted. In my work I see many cases where an artwork has gone for decades, even centuries, with the wrong attribution or fooled someone and the wrong attribution continues to be attached to the artwork. This is a danger I see in using technologies like blockchain for “sealing in” authenticity ‘forever”. If the information is wrong, then that is what will be sealed in. If the specialist is not qualified, this could create problems with the information. Art history is an evolving field and new information from the past appears constantly, often challenging old information.


- What is the current golden standard of comprehensive/reliable authentication?

Sharon Hecker: It depends on the case, but in difficult cases one would ideally want to see all three kinds of tools being used (careful visual examination, provenance research, scientific analysis), along with any specialized information that may come from outside fields as well. For example, I recently worked on a painting where I needed to consult with botanists to know if the flowers and the specific colors of the flowers existed during the artist’s lifetime, and I had to speak to ceramics specialists to know if the vases in which the flowers were depicted existed. In other cases, I consulted antique typewriter experts, and paper experts to find out of the glue on a sticker was lifetime or not—this is actually how the great forger Beltracchi was discovered—conservation scientists noted that the fake labels he created were glued with synthetic glue that did not exist during the artist or the collector’s lifetime. The labels also revealed traces of coffee, which was used to make the labels look aged.


- Is it the same for the court and market needs? How financially manageable is it? 

Sharon Hecker: The first problem is that serious due diligence requires time, and this is something the market is often unwilling to accept. Over and over, as with the recent Frans Hals forgery case or the Salvator Mundi, we find that the market rushed to put something on the market without allowing for a generally accepted view among scholars to mature. The second is that often those conducting the due diligence either don’t have the right experience or have conflicts of interest and should be leaving the work to independent third parties.

The financial issue of the costs of due diligence seems strange to me, since it is always worth spending a bit more on due diligence as opposed to spending millions on a painting only to discover later there is a problem. It is a small investment that helps lower the risk of making a large mistake. Every field outside the art world knows this to be true about due diligence. And not every artwork requires a deep level of due diligence, some are well-documented and well-preserved and require only minimal double-checking of the information.


- Will the trained machine be ever able to replace human authenticator in full or are they going to be complementary? 

Sharon Hecker: I think they will remain complementary. So far, anything the machine is able to be trained to do has to be vetted by a human, just like an ultrasound, MRI, or even a blood test is a great modern medical tool for diagnoses, but its data needs to be analyzed and interpreted according to the personal case and is reliant on the experience and level of specialization of the doctor who reads it, as well as the overall picture of the patient.


Comments: 1
Susan J Cooke
Apr 29, 2021 22:35
Great interview, Sharon. Thank you for so clearly and thoughtfully identifying the great many types of intelligence (as in material evidence, observational skills, art historical knowledge, and analytical methodologies) required to evaluate questions of authenticity and attribution.
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