Sunday, December 19, 2010

Software and Art Authentication

I spent a few days up in the mountains unplugged. However, technology has an interesting way of creeping in even with the cellphone turned off (reception is unreliable anyway) and the laptop stowed. And I'm not going to talk about the visiting electrician who suggested that I test a 9V battery by licking it (he found this quite amusing, but I declined).

First, I was reading one of my alumni magazines and there was a story about a physicist who used software to examine highly controversial paintings that might or might not have been newly discovered Jackson Pollack works (full story here). The physicist, Richard Taylor, uses software to discover the presence of fractal patterns. Apparently, according to his research, true Pollack paintings are fractal filled. Benoit Mandelbrot agreed. Taylor also determined that fractal patterns reduce our stress levels. Interesting. (Has anyone investigated the effects of meditation while looking at fractals?)

There was a lot of money on the line in this particular situation, and apparently the politicking and public flame throwing were severe. As Taylor said in his article: "For the first time, computers were playing a significant role in determining the fate of artworks". The project was kept secret in order to protect its objectivity as well as Taylor himself. The full story reads a bit like a spy thriller. At one point he was advised not to go outdoors in case a bird dive bomb his head; at another point he was advised to he leave the country for a short while! Eventually his analysis, later supported by other evidence, determined the paintings were fakes. (This was about the time he was told to flee to New Zealand). The process of using software to analyse fractals in artwork is now legitimized and used by many researchers.

Reading this article caused me to think of a similar activity on a smaller scale and closer to home. My father (who passed away in 2009) was an archaeological chemist and spent hours on end sitting at his computer developing FORTRAN code to analyse art. Over the years, he was called upon to authenticate ancient ceramics, paintings from the Middle Ages, and was always glued to stamps (he'd appreciate the little joke). Although the culture of ceramics and artwork is interesting, it was his analysis of stamp forgeries that was most unique as far as I (in my admittedly biased position) could tell. He was always programming programming programming and peering at these little bits of lines and ink. I never got to see his code, and I suspect it is now lost, but I'd give a lot to know more about what he was doing. Over the years I would periodically be ordered off on a mission to obtain some obscure piece of software that he wanted to use, or to locate a specific piece of share-ware that he had somehow learned about. Fortunately he published more articles than I could ever read and a few books, so I can read his results even if I cannot see the code that produced it. If those subjects interest you too, here are a few books: on ceramics (here and here), stamps (here and here)

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