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louvre painting

J. Bianca Jackson

A new imaging system helped detect the face of a Roman man underneath the canvas of Campana's “Trois hommes armés de lances,” currently housed at the Louvre.

Hidden treasures: technology used in airport security finds a use for detection in art

by Andrea Towers
Apr 10, 2013

Who is the Roman man hidden underneath the plaster of “Trois hommes armés de lances,” a painting from the Louvre's Campana collection? That’s what art historians want to know after a new imaging technology uncovered hidden artwork.

Unveiled during a meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans, this technology involves the use of electromagnetic radiation. It is commonly known as “terahertz spectroscopy,” referring to the region in the electromagnetic spectrum measured by the properties of wavelength and energy.

The level of the radiation, like that of microwaves and remote controls, is weak enough so that the rays do not damage the paintings. The technique is similar to the full-body airport security scanners.

Although terahertz technology has been a fixture in other industries such as pharmaceuticals for a number of years, its use in the art world is relatively new.

“The main goal of this application to use it as an investigative technique,” said J. Bianca Jackson, a research associate for the Terahertz & Cultural Heritage division at the University of Rochester, who presented the study. “So far, we’ve looked at a variety of objects, from wall paintings to mummies, and it’s proven to be extremely useful in improving the amount of information that we can extract. The technology has a lot of benefits.”

One of these benefits is the fact that unlike older imaging equipment, which is heavy and bulky, its compact size makes it easier for researchers to have the technology on hand whenever they need it.

“We’ve done some field visits to settlements where it’s very isolated, where you can’t have X-rays or computers, and having those portable items might help simplify off-site visits,” said Jackson.

Suzie Schnepp, assistant objects conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago, believes the system has the potential to speed up the process of detection.

“Normally, there is a necessity to build a database of material, so that you can have a thorough study when you try to determine what the composition is,” she said. “This technology has the potential to help us bypass those steps, and still give us the information we’re looking for.”

The new imaging technology has also proven to be helpful in determining artwork forgeries, which, according to Robert Whittman, former senior investigator and founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team, are one of the biggest problems in the art crime scene.

“Many times, forgeries aren’t going to fit the time period, because it will be a direct copy of something else. But it’s still hard to determine a real forgery without a lot of detective work, which is why this new technology is so useful. Electromagnetic imaging can help detect these inconsistencies, and make it easier to spot,” said Whittman, author of the new memoir “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.”

Since its introduction into the art world, a majority of the technology’s use has been in the area of ancient art, particularly on pieces from Rome and Greece. But there are opportunities for the technology to extend to modern creations as well. Modern art is often produced more cheaply with inexpensive materials.

“Because of those reasons, modern art deteriorating more quickly than ancient art,” said Jackson. “There’s more data on materials that go into producing modern art, but that’s why this technique is so important – it can extend to so many levels of the art world in a way that no previous imaging technique could do.”