Sherlock Holmes          

             The Scientific Detection of Fakes



What is a fake?

Photograph of the Cottingley Fairy's

A fake is an object, person or act that is not genuine.  Famous fakes you may have heard of are the Cottingley fairy photographs and the Piltdown man.  Fakes are prevalent in all areas of life from art to literature, from money to clothing.  Many of you will probably have bought a counterfeit piece of designer clothing and everyday we use money embellished with many marks and devices to ensure its authenticity.


Queen Elizabeth I signature In day-to-day life we try to protect ourselves against fraud by using pin numbers and signatures.  The picture on the right shows the signature of Queen Elizabeth I which she made very elaborate so it could not be easily forged.


Fakes illustrate the fallibility of experts, challenge our concepts of reality and affect our understanding of the past.  As humans we are always searching for the truth, as Agent Mulder would say, “The truth is out there” and we attach a great importance to finding it. 

The subject of fakes is a very thorny area, with many complex issues.  

Consider these points:

  1. If a painting is beautiful then why is it important whether it is a fake or not? 
  2. Is it authentic?  What is the relation between the work and the artist to which it is attributed?  From the renaissance onwards it was common for pupils to copy their masters work to establish uniformity within a studios work, and it was normal for the masters to market this work as their own.
  3. In the 18th century incomplete pieces were restored so in these cases the object will be a mixture of fake and genuine. 
  4. We must also consider copies, replicas and imitations.  Here the question of fake depends on the author’s intentions. 
  5. What about religious icons?  These are all crafted to look the same and it would be considered blasphemous for an artist to try and create an original work.

A scientist cannot provide the absolute answers to these questions he can only give answers to more specific questions for example; what is the age of the artifact, and what is it made from?  To answer these questions the scientist of today has many analytical techniques at his disposal and this website will attempt to describe these, their uses and illustrate some cases where they have been of use.  At the same time we must remember that mistakes can be made and it is often the eye of a human that spots the fake first.

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