An­i­mal DNA helps artists brush off would-be forg­ers

Painters in­creas­ingly us­ing iden­ti­fi­able vel­lum for their work as a pro­tec­tion against coun­ter­feit­ers

The Sunday Telegraph - - News - By Pa­trick Sawer

WITH mil­lions of pounds at stake, the art world has long wres­tled with how to de­tect forg­eries, from us­ing chem­i­cal paint anal­y­sis to X-rays, in­fra-red ex­am­i­na­tion and putting can­vases un­der the mi­cro­scope.

But one so­lu­tion has been around all this time, and it dates back hun­dreds of years. Con­tem­po­rary artists are in­creas­ingly turn­ing to vel­lum – the pre­pared an­i­mal skin some­times known as parch­ment, on which Bri­tain’s Acts of Par­lia­ment have tra­di­tion­ally been printed – to in­sure against the risk of copies of their work be­ing passed off as originals.

But while the use of vel­lum goes back to the clas­si­cal age, its use to foil bo­gus copies of valu­able paint­ings is the re­sult of a very mod­ern tech­nique – DNA anal­y­sis. As an an­i­mal prod­uct, each piece of vel­lum used to paint on car­ries a unique DNA fin­ger­print.

This can be matched to a small seg­ment of the vel­lum from the paint­ing re­tained by the artist, should there ever be a ques­tion over its au­then­tic­ity.

It’s a de­cep­tively sim­ple but ef­fec­tive tech­nique for es­tab­lish­ing the prove­nance of a paint­ing, says Bri­tain’s only man­u­fac­turer of vel­lum.

Paul Wright, who runs Wil­liam Cow­ley parch­ment mak­ers in New­port Pag­nell, Bucks, said: “To au­then­ti­cate art, peo­ple have tried all sorts of meth­ods, such as water stamps and other man­made tech­niques.

“But what­ever is man-made can be repli­cated by man to fool some­one. Vel­lum is fool­proof be­cause each piece has its own unique DNA ‘fin­ger­print’, which can be used to es­tab­lish its au- then­tic­ity when compared with a piece of the orig­i­nal re­tained by the artist.”

Mr Wright sells vel­lum to lead­ing con­tem­po­rary artists, not just as a pro­tec­tion against forgery but also for “the beauty” of work­ing with the material.

“I’m told it’s sec­ond to none as a material on which to paint,” he said. “The re­sult looks al­most three di­men­sional.”

“There’s also some­thing up­lift­ing about us­ing vel­lum. You’re cre­at­ing some­thing of per­ma­nent beauty from a crea­ture who might have been killed to make burg­ers for our short-term grat­i­fi­ca­tion.”

Among those cur­rently work­ing on vel­lum is Brigid Edwards, the botan­i­cal artist, whose paint­ings of plants and in­sects are ad­mired for their painstak­ing de­tail and life­like ap­pear­ance.

Edwards, who works from a stu­dio in Cam­den, north London, said: “It pro­duces a re­sult I’ve not found on pa­per. It can de­liver an in­ten­sity of colour with a lu­mi­nous qual­ity. But I’d never thought of the au­then­ti­ca­tion as­pect of it. What an in­cred­i­ble idea.”

Mr Wright said most fraud­sters will not ever try to copy a paint­ing on vel­lum. “They know it’s a fruit­less ex­er­cise,” he said. “You might be able to skil­fully copy the paint­ing, but you can’t repli­cate the DNA of the material on which its painted. It’s unique.”

Vel­lum is also used by artists for the ‘beauty’ of work­ing with the material

In­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed artist Ali Banisadr’s paint­ing In Me­dias Res, is just one of the works be­ing sold at Sotheby’s Dubai in­au­gu­ral auc­tion which aims to show­case fresh view­points from the Mid­dle East.

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