Peter Paul Biro
Forensic Studies in Art

Joann Friedrich Miescher

Johann Friedrich Miescher

While most think DNA analysis is modern 21st century CSI science, it is important to recall that Johann Friedrich Miescher already synthesized DNA in the late 1800s. He called it “nuclein” and considered it a new and unique part of cell structure. Watson and Crick, some 75 five years later in the 20th century, proposed the double helix structure that eventually led to today’s understanding of the genetic role of DNA. Many others contributed to the research in this field but one could hazard a guess that none of them foresaw that one day DNA may provide clues to the authorship of a work of art.

Crick and Watson

James Watson and Francis Crick

Our genetic fingerprints are left behind in so many ways. A single cell, a single hair can provide information that may lead to identification. Today, the oldest surviving DNA sample is 419 million years old, from one of the earliest forms of life on Earth – a saltwater bacterium.

In our work with art, we started considering DNA evidence about a decade ago hoping to shed light on attribution issues. The idea first came when we discovered human hair embedded in original paint on a canvas. Then, some years later we conducted tests on various other hair samples to see if DNA can indeed be extracted from them. Some worked, some did not. The principal issues were contamination and degradation of the samples over time.

Model of DNA strand

Model of DNA strand

The small amount of sample available for analysis was also an issue. Human hair contains little genetic material unless the hair follicle still remains. But, it does contain mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) that holds part of the genetic code inherited from the mother. With the relentless progress in technology, these issues tend to shrink away, opening up new possibilities. We continue to work on finding new ways of discovering genetic material in works of art. While it may not always be the painter’s, it may arguably be someone very close (an assistant or family member) and, like fingerprints, such evidence can establish connections and provide leads.

We are no longer alone in attempting to use this approach. Just recently a debated Van Gogh attribution is awaiting results from DNA analyses. A strand of human hair found embedded in paint is being examined for presence of DNA and, if successful, could be compared to DNA samples from descendants.

Human hair embedded in paint

Human hair embedded in paint. The paint was still fresh when it was deposited and in likelihood belonged to the artist