Can past nuclear explosions help detect forgeries?

The inventors of a new technique for dating paintings say it can prove whether a work was made before or after 1945


St Petersburg

Can nuclear explosions advance art history? A former curator from the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg believes they can. She has developed a new method for dating paintings in collaboration with Russian scientists which, she says, provides “indisputable” evidence of whether a painting was made before or after 1945.

According to the inventors, the new patented technology is based on the idea that man-made nuclear explosions in the 1940s and 1950s released isotopes into the environment that do not occur naturally. The tiniest traces of these isotopes, Caesium-137 and Strontium-90, permeated the planet’s soil and plant life, and eventually ended up in all works of art made in the post-war era because natural oils are used as binding agents for paints.

Therefore, they believe that any work of art originally believed to pre-date World War II, but which registers trace amounts of Caesium-137 and Strontium-90, can be “definitively” declared a post-1945 forgery.

Dr Elena Basner, who has led the team that developed the method, says she plans to use the technology to check the authenticity of Russian avant-garde works dating from 1900 to 1930.

Forgeries in this field first started appearing in the 1960s. They flooded the market in the 1980s and early 1990s as the works became increasingly popular with collectors, says Dr Basner.

“The number of avant-garde fakes out there today is unbelievable, probably more than the number of genuine works,’’ says Dr Basner, who is now a consultant to the Swedish auction house, Bukowskis.

She says the idea for this new technique came to her when she worked as a curator of 20th-century art at the Russian Museum from 1978 to 2003. She spent much time attempting to establish the authenticity of works.

“I noticed that forgers already had all the angles covered, and could perfectly reproduce the paints, canvas, etc., so I wanted to find something ironclad in these paintings that couldn’t be disputed, and this led me to approach scientists for ideas.’’

Discussions between Dr Basner and scientists led them to consider the question of what was the single most significant difference between the pre-and post-World War II periods. The answer? The split atom.

The first nuclear explosion took place in July 1945 in New Mexico. Around 550 were then carried out by the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and France until 1963 when most countries signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty which called upon signatories not to test nuclear weapons.

“Flax in the fields absorbs these two isotopes from nuclear fallout, and the binding agent in paint production is based on natural oils, such as linseed from the flax,’’ says Andrei Krusanov, a geo-chemist and an art historian who is author of books on the Russian avant-garde. “There can’t be any other way around it. Any oil painting made in the nuclear era will show traces of Caesium-137 and Strontium-90.’’

“If the work is genuine, then there won’t be traces of the isotopes,’’ says Mr Krusanov. “If isotopes are present then it’s certainly fake.’’

To date, Dr Basner says she has been approached by around two dozen people interested in the new dating technique; all were collectors who wanted works tested before making a purchase.

One client was Vladimir Afonin based in St Petersburg. He says he used Dr Basner’s service to prove that a painting by Konstantin Gorbatov, signed and dated 1919, was indeed genuine. A quick test showed that there were no traces of the isotopes.

Dr Basner says she is unsure how her new service will be received. “Collectors and dealers don’t want to come to us,’’ she says. “They’re afraid. The market will resist this technology. There are many people who have an interest in keeping fakes in circulation.’’