Animal DNA helps artists brush off would-be forgers
Painters increasingly using identifiable vellum for their work as a protection against counterfeiters
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
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