Physicists use ion beams to detect art forgery

Nuclear physicists are using accelerated ion beams to pinpoint the age and origin of material used in pottery, painting, metalwork and other art.

The results of their tests can serve as powerful forensic tools to reveal fakes in art work, without the destruction of any sample as required in some chemical analysis.

"Art experts play an important role in identifying the style, history and context of a painting, but a solid scientific basis for the proper identification and classification of a piece of art must rely on information from other  sources," said Philippe Collon and Michael Wiescher, nuclear physicists at the University of Notre Dame, the journal Physics Today reports.

"A host of approaches with origins in biology, chemistry and physics have allowed scientists and art historians not only to look below a painting's or artifact's surface . . . investigate painting techniques and modifications done by the artist or art restorers, find trace materials. . . ," added Wiescher and Collon.

The information that is revealed can shed light on trading patterns, economic conditions and other details of history. For example, the amount of silver in Roman coins can indicate the degree of inflation in the ancient economy, according to a Notre Dame statement.

These techniques have allowed not only to analyze the works themselves, but also to determine origin, trade and migration routes as well as dietary information.

As an example, the analysis of the ruby eyes in a Babylonian statue of the goddess Ishtar using the Louvre's accelerator showed that the rubies came from a mine in Vietnam, demonstrating that trade occurred between those far-apart regions some 4,000 years ago.

At Notre Dame, researchers are using proton-induced x-ray emission (PIXE) and Accelerator Mass Spectroscopy (AMS) to study artifacts brought by local archeologists, Native American cultures in the American Southwest and the Snite Museum of Art extensive collection of Mezo-American figurines.

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