Acknowledged value
of the Museum’s scientific laboratory and its methods
for determining authenticity

Attitudes towards and use of scientific methods are influenced by local laws and customs.

Basis of judgment: the situation in Italy (where the Museum is located)

The prime institution for the fight against forgery and imitations is the Guardia di Finanza or Financial Police. The most recent catalogue on the determination of authenticity in art, published by the same in June 2007, contains an exclusive six-page presentation of the scientific laboratory of the Museo d’Arte e Scienza in which its methods for dating paintings, furniture, and objects in ivory and other materials are illustrated in detail and their validity, in effect, endorsed.

Judicial proceedings. The probatory value of the spectroscopic dating method is crucial to the outcome of civil and penal judgments involving the determination of the actual age of art works.

Reliability and accuracy of the spectroscopic method

The need for a new method applicable also to single antiques

The validity of spectroscopic wood-dating method is acknowledged by scientific organizations, associations of restorers and, increasingly, famous museums worldwide. In the 15 years of its existence, our laboratory has performed over 20,000 dating analyses both for research purposes and on behalf of third parties, each measurement confirming the reliability of the method or contributing to its improvement.

 The quest for a new method was begun in 1980 because existing methods, the C14 method and dendrochronology, owing to their well-known intrinsic limitations, could not provide certain results for the scientific dating of the approximately 1,000 wood antiques belonging to the present Museo d'Arte e Scienza. This situation was and continues to be common to most collectors of furniture, panel paintings, musical instruments, non-European art objects and so on.

Testing the validity of the new method

After 3 years of experimentation in effecting measurements and compiling tables for the calculation of age on the basis of spectroscopic frequencies, in 1994-1995 our laboratory approached some important international museums requesting their collaboration in testing the method and improving the tables for the dating of the wood of presumably antique objects. The proposal was favourably received. Six of these museums were invited to provide us with two types of wood samples: (A) Wood from objects of certain dating for the calibration of the tables. (B) Blind samples, without any indications of age, the spectroscopic dating of which permitted them to evaluate the validity and precision of the method. The results of these comparisons demonstrated the accuracy and reliability of spectroscopic dating and have been published.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Question Answer
(see also "Description of the Method",
a paper presented to the AIC meeting in Miami 2002) 
Is spectroscopy a destructive method?

Almost all scientific, manual and optical methods for the ascertainment of authenticity require samples of the material to be examined. These samples are normally very small, weighing only a few milligrams, and their volume cannot be compared to the volumes of material destroyed by insects, worms, corrosion, accidents etc.
Whereas "natural" damage is often considered  proof of the presumed age, the taking of samples for ascertaining the authenticity of an art object is considered an act of aggression against human culture. Obviously these conflicting standpoints are not based on cultural considerations.

Is there any sense in determining age when use could have been made of wood that was already old?

The use of old wood can be detected quickly and easily by comparing the spectroscopic results of the outer layer of the wood with those of wood taken from inside the object.
The surface of an object undergoes a much stronger chemical transformation because it is exposed to daylight, humidity and impurities in the air. If objects are fakes, the results of the two analyses are more or less identical, depending on when they were made.

Is spectroscopic analysis inaccurate because chemical changes depend on the humidity and temperature of the environment?

It is normal to pose this kind of doubt. But wood is a very complex organic material known for its extraordinary resistance to water and heat.
The ability of a part of the wood material to withstand atmospheric agents has been demonstrated, moreover, by amber and by shipwrecks thousands of years old found at the bottom of the sea. Amber is a resin which, even after spending more than 200 million years in sea and river-beds or moist earth, looks very much like fresh resin. The timbers of ancient ships have also maintained the shape and appearance of old wood.
Measurements and comparisons of the spectra of old and young material taken from the abovementioned examples have shown that there are wood molecules whose behaviour is absolutely unrelated to external environmental factors.
These are the molecules which are used for spectroscopic dating.

Can the results of age dating be intentionally altered through manipulation of the wood?

The possibility that material has been manipulated must always be borne in mind whenever determining the authenticity of an object, and was our chief concern during early experiments with spectroscopic dating.
Also in the case of spectroscopy, the wood material proved to be extremely resistant to heat and moisture. This characteristic has been known and documented for a long time (see for example "Holztechnologie" 23, 1982).
Repeated measurements taken over the years by the laboratory to verify the influence of humidity and temperatures of up to 180° C have demonstrated that treatment of the wood aimed at accelerating its ageing does not significantly affect the age of the molecules selected for measurement.
Temperatures of over 180° C modify the entire spectrum.

Is the Milan laboratory  sufficiently well equipped?

The Matthaes Foundation is in a position to acquire the most modern instruments and apply the most suitable methods.
The laboratory's current equipment permits the achievement of optimum results.

Are spectroscopic dating prices  too low for scientific examinations?

Spectroscopic dating is carried out with instruments which are basic equipment for the chemical industry and the health and research sectors.
The greatest costs were incurred during the development of the method dedicated for many years to the spectroscopic identification of the many different wood types and molecules or groups of molecules suitable for dating purposes.
These costs were borne by the Matthaes Foundation.
Today a spectroscopic dating costs about as much as a normal medical examination.

Are there known cases of erroneous measurements?

Statistics tell us that about 60% of the antiques existing in the world are not authentic. Consequently 60% of dating should statistically not correspond to the presumed age. The fault is often attributed to the method.

What legal value do scientific datings have?

All the countries in the Western world have laws punishing the sale of fakes and forgeries. Courts rarely pronounce judgements, however, since so far judges have only had expert opinions to base themselves on. The reliability of spectroscopic dating allows judges to give a clear sentence.

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