The Forbes Pigment Collection Keeps Art Authentic

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On the fourth floor of the Harvard Art Museum is a wall of color. This is the Forbes Pigment Collection, a vault of more than 2,500 pigments, or the small colored particles that are mixed with other materials to make paint.

Why we're covering this: 

  • Because this room holds an incredible real-life lesson in art history.
  • You've seen museum capers and art heists (hello Thomas Crown Affair), but this room holds the true keys to uncovering forgeries. 

The Forbes Pigment Collection was started by Edward Forbes, recognized by many as the father of art conservation in the U.S. and a man with a passion for the role of science in understanding great works of art. The pigments are a big part of this role: by knowing what materials were used to create a pigment, art experts can determine how best to restore a painting to its original luster, or use a mismatch in materials and time period to sniff out a fake. 

Materials from John Singer Sargent’s studio, which Forbes acquired for the Fogg Museum.
Forbes’ assistant, Daniel V. Thompson Jr. identifies pigments in the Fogg Museum’s Madonna and Child by Benozzo Gozzoli

In 2007, for example, a team used the collection to find that certain pigments in three disputed Jackson Pollock paintings weren't created until the early 1980s, roughly 15 years after Pollock's death. Samples of the pigments have been sent to museums all over the world to help people study, authenticate, and preserve the great masterpieces.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Over several decades, the Forbes collection has amassed around 2,500 pigments. 00:35

  2. Mummy brown comes from the resin applied to the outside of mummy bandages. 01:02

  3. Experts can use the pigments to authenticate artwork by checking the materials that were used for the pigment against what was available in the purported artist's lifetime. 01:53

Written by Curiosity Staff June 3, 2016

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