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Unintended consequences – how the Cold War unearthed an art forgery

The “Cold War” in the second half of the twentieth century gave us more than the fitting acronym MAD (which stood for mutually assured destruction). It also gave us something known as the “bomb peak.” Agence France Press explains:

The “bomb peak” is based on radiocarbon levels released during a series of nuclear tests conducted during the Cold War, after 1955.

One of the secondary effects of these was an enormous increase in the level of radiocarbon (C-14) in the earth’s atmosphere, the [Institute for Nuclear Physicists] said.

These levels peaked towards the mid-sixties and then fell again with the signing of various international treaties banning nuclear weapons tests.

“Scientists call this phenomenon the ‘bomb peak’. As the level of radiocarbon in the atmosphere increased, it also increased at a corresponding rate in all living organisms….”

While it’s nice to know that we don’t have to worry about huge amounts of radiocarbon in the atmosphwere any more, it also turns out that this has helped to settle a mystery in the art world. Fernand Leger was a French artist who, among other things, painted a series of paintings known as the “Contraste de Formes” series. These were painted in the 1913-1914 period. An art collection in Venice – specifically, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection – acquired one of these paintings. Or did it? There was some question about whether the painting was an authentic Leger work.

But let’s go back to the “bomb peak.” Remember how it affected “all living organisms”? That also includes the plants that were used to make art canvases.

Enter the Italian nuclear physicists, who examined an unpainted portion of the canvas and determined that it was produced after 1959. Since artist Fernand Leger died in 1955, this made it extremely unlikely that he had painted the picture in question.

I don’t believe that Eisenhower or Khrushchev were thinking about art authenticity when they conducted nuclear tests, but their work helped to solve an art mystery.

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One thought on “Unintended consequences – how the Cold War unearthed an art forgery

  1. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the most important religious icon in the Americas. It’s theft or disappearance would cause chaos in Latin America. But if an exquisite copy is substituted for the original, who would know? The Theft of the Virgin is part of the Murder in Mexico series of mysteries, featuring painter-turned-detective, Paul Zacher.
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