How to Spot a Fake Oil Painting - Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts

October 05, 2018

When it comes to art at events, we often book caricaturists or skilled artists to draw ‘in the style of’ somebody famous such as Picasso or Quentin Blake. Very occasionally we book artists to paint an oil painting or watercolour of a wedding venue for a happy couple, which they can then enjoy throughout their married lives.

Naturally we hand over the original painting but how can you spot a fake oil painting? We don’t presume that our wedding day artists are likely to make a copy of an original and send it back so this week’s fascinating fact merely relates to the world of high end art and high end art forgeries! Yes, your Mona Lisas, your Screams and your multiple Sunflowers and Water Lilly pads. How can you spot a fake?

There are numerous ways to spot a fake oil painting – is the style similar? Does the painting come with documents? What about the signature? Unfortunately art forgers have become extremely good at their craft, right down to the pigments of paint and canvases used, so there are every more ideas being put forward to spot a forgery. One of the most fun we’ve uncovered is this little factoid that puts science to good use.

In 1945, prior to the very first nuclear bomb detonation, chemical isotopes strontium-90 and cesium-137 did not exist in nature. Created by ‘breaking the atom’ in a thermonuclear explosion, these two isotopes became ever more prevalent during the period of 1945 to 1963 when 550 nuclear bombs were detonated around the world. After eighteen years of intense testing, countries around the world agreed not to experiment with nuclear bombs again but by this time strontium-90 and cesium-137 were a part of life on earth.

Isotopes do a lot of things and one of the things that they do very well is bind with crops. The art industry relies on these very same crops to create oil based paints and since these isotopes didn’t exist prior to 1945, any painting painted before that year will not contain trace amounts of strontium-90 or cesium-137.

Alas pretty much any oil painting painted after 1945 will be found to contain these two isotopes so how do you spot a fake oil painting? By testing it using science!

As an interesting extra fact, because of the radioactivity brought to the planet by the nuclear bombs, modern steel is now too radioactive for certain tasks. With this in mind, there is a small industry in salvaging WWI and WWII ship wrecks for their steel; there's actually a WWI wreck off the Isle of Skye (in Loch Alsh) which is routinely dived on to salvage low-/no-radiation steel for the making of scalpels for use during surgery!



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By Henry Fosdike