Joint meeting with the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences

Thursday, 19 February 2014

"Searching for clues: Unmasking art fraud and fraudsters" - Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett

At the first joint meeting of the Society and the Australian Academy of Forensics Sciences, Professor Robyn Sloggitt explain the approach taken by forensics scientists in investigating prosecuting cultural heritage offences. The difficulty that faces authorities is determining whether or not cultural records are true and verifiable. Forensic examination used in these situations follows the Locard principle (named after Edmond Locard the pioneering French forensics scientist) that "every contact leaves a trace".

In order to determine the provenance of works of art, the forensics it seeks to establish how the object was made, what it is made of, when it was made and where it was made. But it is not attempt to determine who made it. An important foundation of provenance is establishing a body of work that can be used as a reference. Here, art and science converge. For example, in order to determine whether or not a painting might have been painted by Rembrandt, it is known that Rembrandt lived from 1608 to 1669, that certain types of pigments but not others were available in that era, canvas and other materials need to be consistent and so on. But none of these, on their own although necessary, can be sufficient to establish authenticity. As philosopher, Karl Popper put it testing cannot establish authenticity, rather it can falsify it.

When forensics science is used to determination whether there has been fraud take place a number of questions have to be answered: was the financial benefit question? was there deliberate deception? was a work that is non-authentic passed off as being authentic? Professor Sloggitt referred to a notable case in which the Australian painter and art copyist, William Blundell, painted works in the style of a number of well-known Australian artists. He referred to these works as "innuendos", stating that they were intended be used for decorative purposes only were not passed off as originals typically being sold for only a few hundred dollars and us, there was no intention to defraud.

When authentication is required, the forensics approach is accommodation of scientific analysis, gathering historical facts, attempting to verify the provenance, weighing up evidence against the item being authentic these are considered together in order to reach a determination that in the balance of probabilities as to whether or not the item is indeed authentic. This depends on the availability of good databases and a logical development of the case, with corroborative evidence and expert knowledge and opinion. The forensics process can be considered to be in two parts: investigation of primary sources; and secondary sources. Primary sources are either invasive or non-invasive, with invasive techniques including methods such as laboratory-based analysis of materials. Non-invasive methods such as spectroscopy, x-ray diffraction, electron might be, Rahman and Fourier infrared analysis in recent decades have become important tools.

Typically, the first steps are to examine documents regarding the artefact and then investigate materials, such as the frame, paints, brushstrokes, and finishing techniques. Contaminants can also be useful such as pollen, dirt, fingerprints, as are ageing characteristics and the effect of the environment. Later changes can also be important. Secondary sources are then investigated and included observations such as style and technique but these are more difficult to deal with as they are subjective and often expert opinion is divided.

Professor Sloggitt gave some insight into a number of notorious fraud cases, one being Wolfgang Beltracchi who forged over 200 works that were passed off as being pre-World War II works by famous European artists such as Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk and Fernand Lédger. The amount involved was $48 million over 15 years and resulted in a gaol term of six years, considered to be a rather light sentence. In Europe, art fraud cases are relatively common but in Australia are quite rare. One reason for this that there is no art fraud squad in Australia, so criminal prosecutions are rare because is no professional expertise in identifying and tracking down criminal art fraud cases and taking them to prosecution.

There was an interesting discussion after the talk that continued over the first joint dinner enjoyed by both the Society and the Academy members.

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