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Synthetic DNA Tags Could Help Artists Outwit Forgers

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

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In a bid to fight forgeries, artists may soon be embedding synthetic DNA into their works.

Scientists from the State University of New York at Albany and artists announced the new scheme over the weekend, stating that while the plan is still in its early phases, they hope to attract enough interest to make it the standard for the industry.

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Each artwork would receive a unique DNA tag that encodes an encrypted key linked to a database. The $150 tags would not only contain the sequences, they would also embed genetic material into the works themselves, leaving invisible but indelible marks. Even if a tag were to be removed, people could check the authenticity by sampling just a small part of the artwork.

Forgeries cost the art world billions of dollars a year, according to some estimates, and as forgers have grown more sophisticated, collectors, museums, and galleries have been searching for a new way for artists to leave their signature. Authentication used to fall on the shoulders of experts, who could spend days or weeks using their encyclopedic knowledge and decades of experience to tell a genuine from a sham. Reading the synthetic DNA could take far less.

Tom Mashberg, reporting for the New York Times:

An objective way of marking art would be particularly attractive at a time when reliance on subjective expertise, or connoisseurship, and often-incomplete provenance, seems to be waning. Curators, artists’ foundations and independent experts now often shy away from authenticating works for fear of being sued.

“There is a deep freeze in authentications,” said Colette Loll of Art Fraud Insights, who was a consultant on the project.

At this point, technical details are scarce—we don’t know, for example, how the DNA will bind to the myriad media that different artists use or how those molecules, once embedded, will be retrieved without significantly damaging the work. It’s also unclear how secure the encrypted key will be—as we’ve seen in the cyber security world, cracking encryption is often just a matter of time.

Discover how experts assess the authenticity of a painting.

Photo credit: Public domain