UCL art historians turn detective to verify a Vermeer

07/07/04

A painting by Dutch artist Vermeer, long thought to be a forgery, will go under the hammer at Sotheby's today for an estimated 3 million pounds thanks to the investigative talent of UCL researchers.

Using a series of techniques ranging from polarising light microscopy to infrared x-ray reflectography, a ten-year study led by Ms Libby Sheldon of the Department of the History of Art was able to verify that the 'Young Woman Seated at the Virginals' was painted by the artist.

Their findings end years of controversy surrounding the authenticity of the work sparked by revelations by master forger Han van Meegeren during a court hearing in 1947, where he admitted that he had sold seven fake 'Vermeers' to unwitting museums and collectors.

Now recognised as the only accepted work by the artist in private hands and the first painting by the artist to be auctioned in over 80 years, the sale of 'Young Woman Seated at the Virginals' at Sotheby's on Wednesday has attracted considerable interest.

Ms Libby Sheldon of the Department of the History of Art comments:

"Advances in scientific techniques in the past century have not only given us some of the greatest medical breakthroughs but have opened the door to re-examining many of the age old quandaries in the world of art.

"Until the 1950s it was necessary to rely on literature searches and careful examination using conventional magnification to piece together whether a debated work was authentic or a fake. Now using scientific analysis it's possible to pin-point the age of a painting by looking at factors such as when pigments were manufactured."

UCL's painting analysis group was initially approached by Sotheby's Old Masters specialist Gregory Rubinstein in 1995 to examine the painting. Following a year-long analysis of the work the team compared their findings with authenticated work by the artist.

"Detailed pigment analysis revealed many tell tale signs that the work was a painting from the 17th century and not a later imitation," explains Ms Sheldon.

"One of the most important discoveries was the use of the pigment lapis lazuli, which produces a beautiful pure blue. In the 17th century it was very expensive so generally used in a prominent way in painting. But Vermeer had a distinctive style. While other artists used lapis lazuli for clothing, Vermeer also used it on chairs or in the background."

Further analysis was performed on 'Young Woman Seated at the Virginals', with the help of Professor Robin Clark of UCL's Department of Chemistry, using a technique known as Raman Laser Microscopy. This uses laser light to examine different wavelengths dependent on the chemical composition of the paint, so the compounds involved can be identified. Analysis confirmed the existence of Lead Tin Yellow in the shawl, a pigment that was not used after the 17th century, thereby proving it was not a later imitation.

X-ray examination of the canvas also revealed that the warp and weft matched the canvas used in another Vermeer painting 'The Lacemaker' and were likely to have been cut from the same cloth.

Ms Sheldon added: "Taken together, our results show conclusively that the work was painted by Vermeer and with only 35 works by Vermeer in existence this is great find. Many other works by famous artists might languish in obscurity and now we have the technology to verify their origins."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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