Math Professor Helps Uncover Art Fakes Professor Daniel Rockmore is an art lover — and the chairman of the math department at Dartmouth College. He has united his two interests, art and math, to develop a program that analyzes pen strokes. The program gives art historians a new tool for detecting art forgeries, which are estimated to make up 20 percent of the worldwide art market.
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Math Professor Helps Uncover Art Fakes

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Math Professor Helps Uncover Art Fakes

Math Professor Helps Uncover Art Fakes

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A: identifying forgeries. A mathematician at Dartmouth College has come up with a technique that could help determine whether you're buying an excellent copy or the real thing. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA: Sometimes you choose a career. Sometimes it chooses you. Take Daniel Rockmore. He's currently chairman of the mathematics department at Dartmouth College.

DANIEL ROCKMORE: I joke a lot that I am a mathematician by mistake. It was something that I had an aptitude at, but I've always had lots of other interests.

PALCA: One thing Rockmore is particularly interested in is art. And he's found a way to integrate his interest in art with his career in mathematics. Specifically, he's come up with ways of analyzing digital images.

ROCKMORE: A digital image is a collection of pixels. So the list of those pixels actually describes an image - for example, the digital representation of a painting as a coordinate in a very high - I mean thousands of dimensional space.

PALCA: And who better than a mathematician to make sense of something that has thousands of dimensions? One day, back in 2001, Rockmore was talking to a friend of his who was an art historian in New York City.

ROCKMORE: And a friend of hers, Nadine Orenstein, is in the drawings department at the Metropolitan Museum.

NADINE ORENSTEIN: And I was working on a Bruegel exhibition at the time.

PALCA: Orenstein is talking about Peter Bruegel, the Elder, a Flemish painter of the 16th century.

ORENSTEIN: The exhibition was of Peter Bruegel's drawings and prints.

PALCA: Orenstein says she invited Rockmore to come to the museum to see the exhibition. It featured works by Bruegel, but Orenstein says there were also several drawings on display that were once thought to be Bruegel's but weren't.

ORENSTEIN: Our exhibition was really the first time that we were getting together in one place all of the drawings by Bruegel and the ones that were no longer considered to be by him.

ROCKMORE: And so Nadine was explaining to me the various particular pen strokes that seem to be characteristic of the way Bruegel works, the way he creates a scene.

PALCA: And Rockmore realized that if he had digital images of these drawings, he could use his math skills to design a computer program that would analyze those pen strokes and characterize which were Bruegel-like and which weren't. So he and some colleagues got hold of the digital images, and they wrote the program.

ROCKMORE: And we did a pretty good job.

PALCA: The Metropolitan Museum's Nadine Orenstein agrees.

ORENSTEIN: That might put a little light bulb in the head of, you know, the scholar and say, oh, you know, here's something we have to further investigate.

PALCA: For his part, Rockmore isn't particularly interested in designing a mathematical tool for tracking down art forgeries. He hopes his work will offer art historians a new way of deconstructing art - a way of describing what it means to be Picasso-like or Bruegel-like.

ROCKMORE: You get at deeper questions about the creation of art, and our experience of art. But, you know, it's probably more fun to report on whether or not that's a fake Bruegel.

PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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