Can a Laser end the Art Market Clone Wars?

Can a Laser end the Art Market Clone Wars?

Like it or not, some people spend a lot of money on art. When they do, art buyers are likely unhappy when they get something other than they bargained for. Modern forgeries are a thorn in the side of fine art buyers, sellers, and scholars.

With sales breaking records at auction, increased demand for better authentication techniques is compelling innovators in science and technology to step in. Professor Nai-Ho Cheung of Hong Kong Baptist University's Department of Physics pioneered and patented a cutting-edge laser authentication technology for art lovers along with his research team. This new technology uses a non-destructive single-shot P-LEAF technique (Plume Laser Excited Atomic Fluorescence) to perform real-time analysis of pigments, ceramics, and metals. The non-destructive nature of the technique is crucial to the art market. Prof. Cheung notes that "using our new technology, only one nanogram or less of the material is vaporised for detection. Damage will not be visible even when examined under a microscope." You can watch a short demonstration of the P-LEAF technique here.

In the wake of high-profile art forgery scandals like Knoedler's fake Rothko (sold for $8.3 million) and Sotheby's fake Frans Hals painting "Portrait of a Man"(sold for $10 million), the value of an accurate and non-destructive authentication technique is patent. Expert testimony can often handle the burden of authenticating a work of art. But sometimes even the experts, like those at the Louvre, can be fooled by a fake. Coincidentally, Professor Cheung's tech company, ANA Artwork Material Analysis Company Limited (ANA), is currently working with the French Artwork National Analytical Laboratory at the Louvre on developing the P-LEAF as an analytical tool. The extent of the laser's application in authenticating works remains to be seen, but it will likely play a role in dating and authenticating the historical context of a given piece.

Let us take a step back and ask what the existence of - and need for - such a technology tells us about the current market for fine art?

Amy Adler, Law Professor at NYU, argues that any artwork’s value is dictated by its authenticity. Her argument is that a copy, regardless of its aesthetic merit, is valueless. What buyers pay top dollar for is originality - not in the sense of novelty, but in the sense of authenticity. No matter how beautiful a copy of a famous work it will never be worth more than the paper it's printed on – unless it can be passed off as an original. For more on Professor Adler’s theory see Robel Sahlu’s recent IPilogue post.

The bizarre case of Robert Fletcher further emphasizes the principle of authenticity's value. Fletcher attributed a painting in his possession to Scottish painter Peter Doig, but Doig denied that the painting was one of his creations. Fletcher then brought a suit for damages against Doig. Fletcher claims that, by denying authorship, Doig ruined a plan to sell the painting. Why? As one commentator put it, Fletcher, who owned the contested landscape painting, thought he'd found "the art equivalent of a winning lottery ticket." At trial, expert testimony was given as to the painting's value. If it was not painted by Doig it was worth between $50,000 and $100,000. If it was painted by Doig... $6 - $8 million.

There is a lot at stake in authentication. Professor Cheung's P-LEAF technique may not be capable of disproving an artist, like Doig, who denies a work is truly theirs. P-LEAF nevertheless has its merits. ANA is hardly the first company to get involved in the scientific authentication of art. The Illinois based Centre for Art Material Analysis played a key role in the investigation of an alleged Picasso found in Staten Island, NY. And Orion Analytical helped established that Hal’s "Portrait of a Man" was a forgery.

Originality, in terms of authenticity, matters most in the eyes of the art market. As long as it does, there will be more demand in the market for the objective analysis of art through science and technology.

Stephen Cooley is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.