art

Battling the Art Fakers With Strands of DNA

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

Forgery is a science, one that is getting better all the time, to the tune of trillions of pounds. Now, a group of researchers, lawyers, and insurers are banding together to beat it with a tool borrowed from science: synthetic encrypted DNA.

Let’s say you’re a wealthy businessperson. You want to get into collecting art (you know, wealthy businessperson stuff). So you go to an art gallery and spend millions of dollars on a painting by an iconic artist. A few years later, forensic tests reveal the painting was a fake, sold to the gallery by a talented scammer, and you’re down many millions of quid. Since the gallery sold the forged painting, you sue it for the cost.

This isn’t a rare scenario. In fact, as The New York Times wrote earlier this month, it’s a little similar to what happened in the Knoedler forgery scandal, which resulted in the closure of the oldest gallery in Manhattan after it sold paintings by 20th century Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko that turned out to be fake.

If a previously unknown piece of art by an artist can’t be authenticated using chemical analysis or another concrete piece of evidence, an expert like a historian or a museum’s board may judge it to be authentic based on their expertise. But that can mean they’re on the hook financially and legally if the painting turns out to be fake. That risk has meant fewer and fewer authenticated works, as forgers threaten to collapse an insanely lucrative industry.

Last year the Wall Street Journal called it a “deep freeze” in the art world. The risk of being sued is just too huge for anyone with the expertise to authenticate a particular piece. It’s just not worth it.

Out of the Lab, Onto the Canvas

A scientist named Martin Tenniswood has become an unlikely player in the movement to revolutionise the art world. Tenniswood is actually the director of the Cancer Research Center at the University at Albany and is a working scientist. But his research studying cancer genomics meant he was the first to suggest a novel form of authentication: synthetic DNA.

“Everybody understands the rigour of DNA,” Tenniswood told Gizmodo, pointing out that the law has dealt with DNA evidence for decades. Even though it’s not always foolproof, “it’s something we can get through the court system”.

After being asked for a reliable method of tracking pieces of art or collectibles over many decades, Tenniswood suggested creating a sticker that’s roughly the shape of a business card and sticking it to the back of a painting. On this card will be a number of micro-fluidic channels, each containing a unique fingerprint in the form of DNA that can be extracted and tested for authenticity against a centralised encrypted database of markers held by insurers.

Forgery Is Getting So Good That Scientists Had to Invent Keys Made From DNAMicrofluidic channels on a “lung on a chip,” built by Harvard and named “Best Design of the Year” for 2015.

This system has been named i2M, and it’s the first project of a research organisation called the Global Center of Innovation on Standards and Solutions for Object Identification Technologies in the Global Art and Collectibles Industry, supported, in part, by a fine art insurance company called ARIS. Meanwhile, private companies (like Provenire Authentication, which is run by Tenniswood’s son Robert) are collaborating to develop and test the technology itself.

How to Hide a Message in DNA

This process of amplifying DNA has been very common for decades. It originated in the 1980s, and uses a process called the polymerase chain reaction to create millions of copies of a particular fragment of a piece of DNA. This is useful because it gives scientists a bigger sample of that little fragment, which might be too small to identify for study otherwise.

What Tenniswood and his collaborators are doing is adapting that existing process. By embedding each micro-fluidic “well” of DNA with a strand containing a unique sequence, they’re hiding a message to any future authenticators. A collector or gallery can test the painting’s authenticity by asking a technician to extract DNA from one of the wells. Then, they compare it against the encrypted database held by the insurer, looking for a particular “key” strand.

Each well can each only be used once, and the i2M standards assume authentication will only happen once every few years, or every decade. To prevent forgers peeling off the stickers and putting them on copies, they’re testing tampering inks that would change colour if removed. The system would be purchased by artists on a case-by-case basis and affixed as soon as a piece was completed.

Forgery Is Getting So Good That Scientists Had to Invent Keys Made From DNAA painting at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, which hosted a “spot the fake” exhibition this year. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

The project is interesting to art insurers and investors because it would stabilise the tumultuous art market and reduce the risk they take on when they insure or purchase a work. It’s interesting to collectors and galleries because it would mean being able to sell works without any threat of being sued. And of course, it’s interesting to the artists, who would opt-in to using it because it would give them final say on which pieces were truly authored by their own hands, long after their own deaths.

DNA is the Next Data Format

More and more, DNA looks like our best bet for preserving data long-term. A single gram of DNA can contain as much as 700 terabytes of data. More importantly, perhaps, it can last for hundreds of thousands of years, making it more reliable than any storage tech we know of today. Bioengineers are already proposing writing the whole of human knowledge on DNA and storing it in the Svalbard "Doomsday" Seed Vault for safekeeping.

What Tenniswood and his colleagues at Albany are suggesting isn’t all that far-fetched. But he still sees his proposal as temporary, predicting that it’s only the first stab at a technology in its infancy. The i2M project is testing the stability of the synthetic DNA using artificial ageing technology, but only to 100 years.

“This won’t be a static field,” he says. “Somebody’s going to come up with a better technology in five to ten years time, I would suspect.” Rather, i2M is a first attempt at a more reliable way to track million-pound pieces of art, not a finished product. “This is the starting point for what I think could become a very large industry,” he says.

For example, it’s one thing to encrypt a message beyond recognition, but could the ciphers themselves ever be kept truly secure? Provenire, one of the companies further developing i2M for private enterprise, said that the details of its security system remain proprietary, but was able to give a few details. “All data to and from Provenire’s platform runs on 256-bit encryption together with sophisticated multi-factor authentication,” Provenire’s CIO, Ram Salman, said over email. “Provenire’s proprietary platform will generate a private key for each implemented DNA tag, producing the digital layer where authenticated queries will initially be made.”

i2M’s encrypted DNA stickers are far from a finalised standard; they’re more like a prototype, a first shot at a more advanced method of authenticating art and collectables. The broader goal of Albany’s Center for Innovation, which already includes conservation scientists from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, as well as a host of lawyers who specialised in art fraud. The centre has gathered a list of a dozen working artists who have agreed to test the first iteration of the sticker system, including Chuck Close.

There are still plenty of challenges to the system, too, like how it would be affixed to fragile works, and again, the details of the encrypted database itself. But the point of the Center, as Tenniswood points out, isn’t really to develop the perfect technology: it’s to rigorously test all emerging anti-forgery technologies to ensure they can stand up in court.

Whether the i2M project will produce a truly uncrackable system is impossible to say right now — if history tells us anything, it’s that life, and counterfeiters, find a way.

Lead image: “The Protestant Barn,” a Van Gogh painting whose authenticity has been debated for years. Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images.