Detecting fakes among masterpieces
By GENARO C. ARMAS Associated Press
Vincent van Gogh’s masterpieces have inspired both young artists and prospective forgers seeking to recreate his vivid landscapes and portraits. Those forgeries are inspirations, too. But in an ironic twist, scientists are turning to modern technology to give art experts better tools to answer an expensive and age-old question: Is it an original Van Gogh painting or a fake? A unique collaboration of artists and scientists forged by Cornell University professor C. Richard Johnson uses computer screens as canvases. While the project focuses on Van Gogh’s classics, the outcome could have an impact throughout the art world. ‘‘It’s something we would all like to be using a lot more, but it’s really just starting,’’ Ella Hendricks, head of conservation at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, says. Computer programs and algorithms typically aren’t the forte of artists more comfortable speaking about brushstrokes and light. A Cornell electrical engineering professor who also has a minor in art history, Johnson sought to bridge the divide, and during a sabbatical three years ago he became curious about projects that might finally marry his two interests. When he found other researchers around the world working on similar projects, he approached the Van Gogh Museum. Would it allow access to its digitized collection, so the scientists could experiment with technology that would help art historians, conservators and connoisseurs? The museum agreed, and a May 2007 workshop on computer image processing yielded promising results. Scientists studied 101 high-resolution scans of Van Gogh paintings, of which 23 had been identified by art historians as authentic. They were used as a training database for Van Gogh’s brushstroke styles. Statistical models were created to capture the unique style, or ‘‘handwriting’’ that became the artist’s signature. The other paintings — works by Van Gogh or his peers, or paintings at one time attributed to him but later deemed inauthentic — were compared with the statistical models. The forgeries had more brush strokes. ‘‘I can’t do [the original] in one motion because I’m not [Van Gogh],’’ Johnson says. ‘‘So I strike the brush multiple times to mimic the art.’’ The painstaking process could go unnoticed by the even the best-trained naked eye, but Johnson sees the project as an added tool — rather than a replacement — for art experts.
KROLLER-MULLER MUSEUM/JAMES WANG/JIA LI/AP FINDING A FAKE: Photo shows a known forgery of Van Gogh’s The Sea at Saintes-Maries, left, and the brushstrokes of the image at right.