By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Two men stand accused of trying to cash a fake $100,000 scratch-off lottery ticket, WJTV reported recently. Both have pleaded not guilty to all charges against them. How are forgeries defined and detected?
According to local Mississippi channel WJTV, Odis Latham and Russel Sparks were being held in the Rankin County Jail for attempting to cash in a forged, winning lottery ticket in Flowood, Mississippi. The ticket appears to have been forged into a winner when the culprits super-glued winning numbers onto a losing ticket. Forgery is often a crime sensationalized by blockbuster films and books, but it’s enough of a common crime to be divided into multiple legal categories and with expert methods of detection.
But Is It Art?
Aside from forging checks and lottery tickets, art fraud is a high-stakes crime often overlooked. Notorious con man Elmyr de Hory is an infamous example of a criminal who created works that resembled famous artists’ paintings and sold them.
“There are three main categories of art fraud,” said Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph. “One is what de Hory routinely did—make a piece of artwork and play it off as created by someone famous. Another category is what some of the galleries or investors did once they found out they had a de Hory, and that is to know a piece of artwork is a fraud, but sell it as an original.”
Dr. Murray said that with this second category, the duped party wants to avoid a loss on their purchase, so they may attempt to act quickly to turn it around to another seller and play ignorant if the truth ever comes out. She also added that sometimes a gallery may still sell the forgery for far less than they paid for it just to avoid the scandal, since the gallery’s reputation could be ruined if word got out that they were tricked with a forgery.
“The third main art forgery category is when someone finds an existing piece of artwork and decides to credit it to someone they know was not the artist in order to sell it for a high price,” Dr. Murray said. In other words, if a local artist influenced by Salvador Dali sells someone a painting for $100, the buyer may pass it off as a Dali and sell it for $50,000.
As technology has developed, so have methods of art forgery. Dr. Murray said there are three methods used to find out fake paintings.
“Optical microscopy, often called light microscopy, in the magnification range of five to 50 times, allows a forgery expert to view the details of tiny cracks that naturally form on paint over time,” she said. “This will let them judge whether the cracks are authentic, were accelerated using solvents, or were even merely drawn on the surface.”
UV lights will cause different reactions to cracks of different origins, she said. However, in ambiguous cases, looking at the layers beneath the surface—also called underpainting—can do the job.
“Conventional medical x-rays and infrared analysis can see through layers of paint and detect earlier artwork created on the same background,” Dr. Murray said. “When using x-rays, the film is placed in front of the painting and the x-ray is shot from behind to reveal any underpainting. If the styles don’t match—especially if the background art is of a type that came into fashion later than the foreground—they can suspect forgery.”
Finally, Dr. Murray said, when determining the authenticity of a painting, the actual mediums used to create it can be analyzed through several tools. X-ray diffraction studies can reveal “the actual crystalline structure” of components within pigments of paint; x-ray fluorescence bathes the paint in radiation to observe its chemical reaction, which determines its origins; neutron activation uses energized neutrons to react with certain atoms on the painting and make those atoms become radioactive isotopes.
The accused Mississippi scratch-off forgers didn’t seem to elicit such extensive forensics in their caper, but they stand as proof that for-profit forgery and fraud still run rampant. However, as Dr. Murray pointed out, investigators have sophisticated methods of detecting fakes and catching criminals.
Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray contributed to this article. Dr. Murray is a forensic anthropologist and also Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of Mount St. Joseph and her master’s degree in anthropology and Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Biology from the University of Cincinnati.