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Arts & Life

Using DNA To Authenticate Art


Fine art can be faked by fine forgers, but a group of scientists have been working to develop a new way to detect authenticity - embedding synthetic DNA into artworks. Martin Tenniswood is a lead scientist at Provenire Authentication, which is trying to develop the technique. And he joins us now from the studios of Northeast Public Radio in Albany. Thanks very much for being with us.

MARTIN TENNISWOOD: Oh, you're welcome.

SIMON: And why DNA?

TENNISWOOD: The simple answer to that is that the - in terms of legal issues - it's well-established in the courts. So that making it - using DNA makes it much simpler to pass the tests that would be set up by jurisprudence to establish ownership and provenance.

SIMON: Does it make a mark on the painting? I mean, somebody who owns a Picasso might not want anything smeared on it.

TENNISWOOD: The basis of the whole enterprise is that anything we do to mark the painting has to have no impact on the painting itself. The DNA is not put onto the painting directly but onto what we refer to rather simply as a tag.

SIMON: I mean, potentially, how many works of art in galleries and shops and museums around the county might be tagged?

TENNISWOOD: In real terms, it could be all of them. When this rolls out, we have to roll it out very carefully. Anything that is attached to the artwork must do no damage. So it's easy or relatively easy to tag - put the tag on the back of a painting. It's not going to be visible from the front and it's a relatively straightforward process. And I say relatively because the adhesion processes have to be very carefully analyzed. The second stage of this is actually getting into artwork with, for example, contemporary art that is in the form of sculptures. And we have to develop a methodology to apply these tags to non-flat surfaces.

SIMON: And how expensive is a DNA embed, Mr. Tenniswood?

TENNISWOOD: So basic costs of the tag will probably be about $150 per piece of art.

SIMON: Well, big museums can afford that, although some of the large collections that's - that'll be quite a lot of money, won't it?

TENNISWOOD: Yes, it is for that and even for prolific artists it will be a significant portion of money. But that is an investment in the future in terms of both the theft and otherwise, the ability to ensure the artwork - all of those issues are actually going to save money in the long term. And in terms of prosperity, it means that they - the individual's heritage is actually being maintained in that way.

SIMON: Martin Tenniswood, lead scientist with Provenire Authentication, thanks very much for being with us.

TENNISWOOD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.