Earlier today the International New York Times reported on a fascinating new authentication system that would allow living artists to “sign” their artworks with very small amounts of synthetic DNA. Being that my passions include science and art, I couldn’t wait to write up this week’s Art Law blog post on this new scientific marking protocol (still under development) for authenticating art.
The Global Center for Innovation at the State University of New York at Albany is behind the development of this science-based approach for art authentication as the recipient of $2 million in funding from the ARIS Title Insurance Corporation, which specializes in art. About two years ago, the New York Times reports, the Center, recognized for its work in the areas of bioengineering, encryption and nanotechnology, began the development of an approach to “infuse paintings, sculptures and other artworks with complex molecules of DNA created in the lab.” It was important to have a marker that was difficult to locate and not susceptible to environmental issues or tampering and, of course, that living artists would embrace such an approach.
With forgeries one of the most “vexing problems” facing the global art market today, and artists’ foundations, curators, and independent experts no longer authenticating works for fear of being sued, the Center’s approach could not have come at a better time than now.
The Center’s new approach would “implant synthetic DNA, not the personal DNA of the artists, because of privacy issues and because a person’s DNA could conceivably be stolen and embedded, thus undermining the authority of such a marking protocol.” According to the developers, the bioengineered DNA would be “unique to each item and provide an encrypted link between the art and a database that would hold the consensus of authoritative information about the work.” A scanner, accessible to anyone in the art industry wishing to verify a work, could read the details of the DNA embedded in the artwork.
Artists and owners would need to purchase a “tag” (estimated to cost around $150) that could be used in applying the DNA. Upon application, the “DNA would penetrate the work at the molecular level, so removing the tag would not eliminate the item’s forensic signature.” In the development of the approach, it was critical that the application of the tags have no impact on the artwork. ARIS, the financial backer of the approach, observes that deciphering and replicating the DNA would be all but impossible as even sophisticated counterfeiters would “leave [behind] microscopic forensic evidence” if they attempted to remove or replace the DNA.
Supporters of this new approach assert that potential purchasers and sellers could also check artworks for DNA codes to determine whether the works have been stolen—such action could block the resale of artworks by auction houses and galleries and lead to their recovery.
As of this report, about three dozen internationally recognized artists, archives, foundations and museums have signed up to test the technology, which could be ready by early next year.