MEET ART DISCOVERY: MASTERS IN SCIENTIFIC ANALYSIS

An LTArt interview with Dr. Curt Bilby, Executive Chairman of ArtDiscovery, a market leader for scientific analysis and technical art history in support of art authentication.


13 July, 2021

According to your experience, why is it important to rely on scientific analysis when analysing an artwork?

The art market has traditionally relied on connoisseurship and provenance research to authenticate and attribute works of art. Knowing more than one-third of the artworks on the market are misattributed or fake, the inherent limits of these traditional methods place significant risk on the participants in the marketplace. Connoisseurship and provenance research remain two fundamental aspects of the process of authentication. Savvy and well-informed buyers and sellers want the support of third-party, scientific data and analyses.

Could you please take us through the analysis process at ArtDiscovery?

When receiving an enquiry for a possible analysis, we tailor our approach to obtain the highest level of certainty about the nature and history of our client’s artwork. Once the analysis process has been defined, the artworks can be shipped either to one of our offices, in London and New York, or we can arrange for the analysis to take place at an alternate location – from down the street to across the globe.

We work closely with provenance researchers and connoisseurs to help our clients throughout the entire process of authentication and attribution, always assuring the highest level of confidentiality and fast turnaround times. Once the scientific evidence has been collected, we analyze it within the context of technical art history. We then deliver the results to our clients via an easy-to-understand report of findings.

'Portrait of a Man in a Gorget and Cap’, Rembrandt, Copyright: ArtDiscovery 2012. Courtesy of Christie’s.

At LTArt, we are passionate about the relationship between art and science, including technology. Obviously, you share this passion. What role does technology play in art authentication and how do you see it evolving within the art market, in general?

Technology plays a crucial role in art authentication, and it is incredible what you can discover when using it. We have such fascinating stories. Unfortunately, many are confidential to our customers.

One example we can share is an X-Ray on Mikhail Larionov's 'Red and Blue Rayonism (Beach)' that allowed us to discover a portrait of a woman hidden beneath the abstract brushwork of the surface. The woman was identified as the wife of the artist, and fellow Russian avant-garde painter, Natalia Goncharova. The discovery allowed us to add on the knowledge of the artist's working practice, enhancing the cultural and financial value of the piece.

A very important point is that besides the scientific results, it is important to place these results within the historical context to understand the artist's backgrounds, techniques and working practices. Maybe people can run and test and provide the basic data. Turning that scientific data into information for the art market is a significant step – where we often shine.

In general, I am very positive to see that the art market is embracing new technologies more than ever and that scientific analysis is increasingly recognized as a way to ultimately support the authenticity and attribution of works of art.

You mention that you view yourselves as 'far more than scientists'. Can you tell us more about your team’s background?

I feel very lucky to work with such a multidisciplinary team, with backgrounds ranging from conservation to business, forensic science, and art history. While being a good scientist is key to the job, it is also fundamental to be able to interpret the results and contextualize them within the broader context of art history. Science and art history are two complementary aspects when looking at an artwork for answers. That is why our scientists have also in-depth knowledge in art history, technical art history and conservation practices.

What was one of your most memorable scientific discoveries?

ArtDiscovery is the world's leading scientific analysis firm, and we are proud to have taken part in many of the most striking art discoveries of the last decade, many of which are confidential. One for instance, from a couple of years ago, thanks to our technical analysis, we were able to support the reattribution of a painting to John Constable, long thought to be lost. The painting had been purchased for as little as $5,000 and deemed in an auction catalogue note as "after John Constable". After our analysis, we were able to help connoisseurs assess the painting was, in fact, by the master himself. The work is now estimated to value around $5 million.

How common is art forgery and what do you think is one of the main challenges when trying to detect it?

Unfortunately, it is estimated that 25 – 50% of the artworks on the market are either forged or misattributed. Luckily, our tools and expertise allow us to provide our clients with convincing data on the nature and history of their artworks.

Many Old Master artists had large workshops where pupils and assistants would help them to complete commissions or mimicking their master’s style to learn. Although such artworks did not mean to deceive, they have often tricked the eye of experts: certain aspects of an artwork are not visible to the naked eye, and scientific analysis is the only way to discover them. For example, imaging techniques such as x-ray and infrared are key to discern from an original work and a copy, as they allow us to see the underdrawings or changes in the composition.

I am convinced that a multidisciplinary approach that fuses science and art, is the only effective way to face the issue of forgeries. With the help of science, art history, provenance research, connoisseurial expertise and an open mind towards new technological innovations, we can create an art market that is less risky and easier to access for future generations.


If you would like to learn more, you can visit ArtDiscovery here.

Aurelia Clavien

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