Non-Invasive Testing Uncovers the Composition of Art and Artifacts

Sunday, January 29, 2012
The January 2012 issue of Physics Today has an interesting article by Notre Dame physics professors Philippe Collon and Michael Wiescher.  Titled "Accelerated Ion Beams for Art Forensics," it discusses the use of non-invasive nuclear physics to detect forged art and more.  For example, the authors write about the ability of PIXE (Particle Induced X-Ray Emission) to analyze the make-up of an object:

"The scope of applications of PIXE in the art world has grown steadily. When applied to a work of art, as shown in the figure, PIXE helps to identify the composition of pigments or other materials; thus it has had a growing impact in the forensic analysis of suspected forgeries. The analysis of ancient coins provides information about the minting process and also leads to deeper insight into economic developments. For example, inflation during the Roman Empire is reflected in a continuous devaluation of the silver denarius coin, as silver was gradually replaced by less valuable metals. In collaboration with others at Notre Dame, we are investigating the unique black-and-white ceramics of the American Southwest to identify whether mineral or organic pigments have been used to generate the paint and to determine the provenance and distribution of the pottery material. We have also joined with our colleagues to explore the frequently shifting 18th-century colonial boundaries in the present US Midwest by studying the composition of regional Native American copper jewelry. With PIXE, copper mined locally in the upper lake region can be distinguished from British or French imported copper."

Read more about PIXE testing and the authors' discussion of accelerator mass spectrometry here.

You may also be interested in learning about the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Italy, which has used PIXE to analyze Galileo's manuscripts.