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IAEA to Curb Illegal Art Trafficking

Ancient Statuettes

Ancient artefacts are magnets for forgers and thieves. (Photo credit: Prof. L. Sajo Bohus, Venezuela)

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Better known for its work to prevent nuclear smuggling, the IAEA is now helping countries to crack down on the illegal trade in counterfeit art. Art fraud and the black-market trade in cultural objects is a major source of international crime, according to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In a bid to reduce it, the Agency has teamed up with experts from France´s famous Louvre museum and fourteen other countries across Europe, South America, Africa and Asia to use nuclear science to identify authentic artworks from phoneys.

The IAEA project brings museum conservators, analytical researchers and law enforcement officers together to apply nuclear analytical applications to detect bogus or fake works of art. Some of the techniques include neutron activation analysis and ion beam analysis. They involve shooting a beam of neutrons or protons at a sample area of the artwork. The reaction reveals a wealth of information, including the trace elements present, which help scientists to identify the object´s origin and age without causing any damage. Even the most minute analytical quantities can be traced safely and accurately.

For example, a portrait of Renaissance French potter Bernard Palissy was revealed as a fake, after nuclear analysis performed at the Louvre exposed that the paint from the artist´s signature was scribed two centuries after Palissy´s death.

The sensitive analysis also sheds light on the lives of ancient cultures. Analysis of a statue of an Ishtar goddess discovered near Babylon, for example, showed that the figurine´s eyes and navel were fashioned with the most ancient rubies found in the Middle East (rather than red glass or garnets as previously thought). The analysis provided evidence of a previously unknown gem trade route between South-East Asia and Mesopotamia during the 1st century BC.

According to Interpol the illicit trade in art and cultural objects is sustained by the demand from the art market, the opening of borders, improvements in transport systems and the political instability of certain countries.

The IAEA project begins this year to extend the use of nuclear analysis to Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, China, Malaysia, Syria, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Croatia and Hungary, with technical assistance from France, Germany, Greeceand Poland. IAEA chemist, Mr. Matthias Rossbach, said the project would boost these countries abilities to detect illegal export of objects protected by international laws and pillaged from archaeological sites. He said law enforcement personnel, for example, could use portable elemental analysers at borders to help combat art trafficking.

It is expected that extending this technology to developing countries will also help in the safe-keeping, conservation and restoration of valuable national heritage.