INTERVIEW: High-Tech Art Services: What You Need to Know

A discussion with Yan Walther, Managing Director at SGS Art Services.

1. Could you explain to us the range of services that SGS Art Services offers?

SGS is the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company, employing in 2015 over 85’000 people in the world operating from 1’800 laboratories and offices in 170 countries. We are active in most business and industrial sectors.

The mission of our art department, SGS Art Services, is to deliver reliable and independent data on artworks and cultural objects to the art community thanks to an objective and scientific approach.

The main services provided by SGS Art Services are:

–       Condition reports: an accurate and detailed documentation, supported by photographs and sketches, of an art object or painting during a sale or a logistic operation (transport, art fair, exhibition, etc)

–       Technical (forensic) analyses: scientific analyses allow to characterize materials and techniques or date an art object. As they offer objective material information, technical analyses are more and more often used as a complement to expert opinion in the due diligence when acquiring an artwork of a certain value

–       Digitalization of art collections: we provide hi-tech digital photography of art collections with color monitoring and systematic technical description

–       Carrier services

–       Anti-money laundering training and auditing

2. What kind of technology do you use?

In order to provide systematic, thorough and standardized condition reports, we have developed a proprietary software, templates based on museum best practices and rigorous inspection procedures. We have selected experienced and accredited paintings conservators in key locations (New York, London, Paris, Geneva, Bruxelles and Luxembourg for the moment) and are training them to our processes and methodology in order to deliver standardized reports that ensure coherence and traceability of artworks and their state of conservation globally.

As for technical analyses, they are performed with state-of-the-art imaging and scientific methods such as infrared reflectography (allowing to see underdrawings under certain conditions), digital x-ray radiography, x-ray fluorescence (non invasive characterization of inorganic pigments), stereomicroscopy, UV fluorescence and many other analytical techniques. We have a state-of-the-art laboratory in the Geneva Freeport and are planning to open new mobile laboratories in other locations in the upcoming months.

3. What would be a typical process with a new artwork to analyse? Is there a standard procedure?

Each artwork is different, and the questions of our clients vary a lot (dating, presence of past restorations, coherence of the materials and techniques found in a given artwork with what is expected from a particular painter, school or period, fragility and degradation processes, etc). We therefore establish a tailor-made analytical plan for each project.

Still, we often start the examination of a painting by a careful surface observation under stereomicroscope and UV light in order to determine the areas of retouching. It is indeed crucial to understand which materials are original and which are later additions before performing pigment analyses. Looking at the back of a painting is also essential and often provides crucial information. Infrared reflectography and X-ray radiography may reveal under-drawings, underlying compositions or more generally give us insights about the technique of an artist.

However, even if the analytical plan is not standard, we perform and document each analysis and record each result according to the most stringent scientific standards. It is essential in the scientific methodology that each analysis is described in such terms and details as to make possible for any other competent researcher to cross-check its result. That is the reason why we use exclusively analytical methods that are acknowledged by the scientific community. It is also fundamental that no information is lost in the process. These are probably the reasons why SGS Art Services is often called in to litigations as an expert witness or for counter-expertise.

4. Do you have an example of a case study you could share with us?

We are very limited in the number of case studies we can show as we are committed to a very strict confidentiality regarding the works we analyse and our findings. However there are two interesting cases that we are allowed to present.

Case 1 – Infrared reflectography reveals a very spontaneous and free underdrawing

Three versions of this painting attributed to Adam van Breen are well known. Two are in major museums and one is in a private collection. This beautiful underdrawing is certainly a sign that we are in presence of the first of the three versions, which was very good news to the owner!

Image en lumière visible Réflectogramme infrarouge

Case 2 – UV fluorescence

In that case UV florescence shows very clearly the extent of past retouching (darker zones) on this work after van Dyck. It is perfectly normal for an old painting to be retouched. But it is also perfectly normal, when you acquire an artwork, to be aware of the extent of the retouching.

Image en lumière visible-2 Image UV

5. How would this expertise be useful to KFA’s clients?

Our expertise is complementary to KFA’s services. As an independent inspection company with no involvement in the market we can provide KFA’s clients with objective information about the state of conservation of an artwork they are thinking to acquire, which in its turn, may have an important impact on its value.

Also, the art market is unfortunately very impacted by fakes and forgeries or works with uncertain attribution. Scientific analyses are a powerful tool to complement the due diligence already put in place by a professional art advisor such as KFA in order to detect fraudulent works or to discover previously unknown masterpieces!

6. How can your art analysis help inform an artwork’s valuation?

Authenticity is of course the key factor in the valuation of a painting. In most cases, a fake work will be worth only the canvas it has been painted on. More subtly, as in the case study above, it is crucial to determine if an artwork has been painted by the Master, his workshop, a follower or if it is a more recent copy. It will of course have a strong impact on the value. Everybody knows in the Art Market that a work from Rembrandt or his workshop have values that may vary from one to ten… or more! Such important attributions – from a financial as well as from an art historical perspective – have to be supported by scientific evidence.

Collectors often forget that the state of conservation of an artwork, its fragility and the amount of retouching, have a direct correlation with its value. Strangely enough, what is perfectly evident to anybody when buying a second-hand 3 year old car becomes a taboo when buying an artwork that is 10, 50 or 300 years old! It is therefore essential for the buyer to request an independent condition report on any important artwork he is thinking of buying.

7. Finally, how did you come to work for SGS Art Services?

In 2009, I had the chance to be involved in the creation of FAEI – Fine Arts Expert Institute, one of the first private laboratories in the world specializing in the technical examination of artworks. In 2014, we started discussing with SGS for the creation of a global project on the basis of FAEI’s expertise and we launched SGS Art Services in 2015, which I have managed since the inception.

To find out more about SGS Art Services: