Artful Software Spots Faked Masterpieces

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
November 23, 2004

As soon as people began paying for art, the lucrative business of art forgery was born. How widespread is the problem today? By the wildest estimates, 15 percent of the art sold at auction houses may not be authentic.

No wonder forgery detection has become an art in itself.

Authenticating works of art has long been the domain of art historians steeped in the works of a particular artist. In addition to their discerning eyes, these art sleuths have also been able to use surface-material examination and x-ray analysis to determine if a work of art is authentic.

Now they may have another tool in their arsenal.

Scientists have developed a new digital authentication technique that analyzes and classifies paintings based on a digital analysis of the artist's style.

The method could also be used to determine if more than one hand was involved in creating the work, something physical forensic science has never been able to do.

"This technique, in conjunction with traditional methods, could play an important role in art forensics," said Hany Farid, a computer scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He is the co-author of a report describing the technique published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Smooth Compressions

The digital authentication technique builds a statistical model of an artist from scans of a set of authenticated works. Other works are then compared against this baseline data.

The process finds consistencies and inconsistencies in the works. The technique is similar to how a digital camera compresses an image by removing so-called statistical redundancies.

"Imagine comparing one painting by a very talented artist with a smooth, elegant brush stroke with another painting by an imitator whose strokes are more clunky," Farid said.

"When compressed, the image that is smooth and continuous is going to be easier to compress, because there's a lot of redundancy and consistency, while the image that's choppy and broken up is going to be harder to compress," he said.

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