Agilent and the Ambiguity of Art Authentication

In 1958, a painting sold for $60.  It had been overpainted multiple times, once with artificial resin.  The wood panel was split and glued together with stucco.

This week, the painting is expected to sell at auction for $100-200 million.

Salvator Mundi” has recently been authenticated as one of only 14 paintings by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci.  It has been hailed as “The male Mona Lisa.”

It took seven years to authenticate Salvator Mundi (“Savior of the World”).  Among other things, experts noted the unique way the Christ figure holds his two fingers, which demonstrates a knowledge of anatomy superior to 20 other similar works.

Three versions of “Salvator Mundi” by da Vinci, de Ganay and Sesto


Art authentication can be very subjective.  Another possible long-lost Da Vinci, “La Bella Principessa,” is still being hotly debated and contested.

Analytical chemistry plays a critical role in art authentication.  In the 1990s, Robert Trotter was convicted of producing and selling fake American primitive style folk art.  Scientists used instruments including an Agilent gas chromatograph, mass spectrometer detector and column to determine that materials in Trotter’s paintings were inconsistent with true 1860s folk art.

In another case, scientists examined a supposed 14th-century painting that was bought from Icilio Federico Joni, known as both a restorer and a forger.  Using equipment that included an Agilent GC-MS, the scientists determined that the painting included contemporary materials.  However, they caution that these materials may have been used for restoration as opposed to fraud.

“The examination shows that the distinction between a heavily restored painting and a fake can be ambiguous,” the researchers note, “particularly when only a vestige of the original remains.”

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