Conservators look through microscopes to gather information about an object’s composition and construction—and on a regular day in the lab, knowing such things is an end unto itself. “It’s just interesting, that’s all,” one conservator once told me. When an object’s history is uncertain, however, those scientific results take on layers of meaning, each a potential bit of evidence that can help solve the mystery. In 2001, conservators at the J. Paul Getty Museum undertook a thorough reexamination of a massive French cabinet long believed to be a fake: a 19th century piece designed to resemble Renaissance-era handiwork. Zooming in on a single brass tack turned out to yield important clues as to the cabinet’s making, and helped prove its authenticity.
When J. Paul Getty purchased the cabinet in 1971 for $1,700, curators warned against the acquisition. The cabinet’s pristine condition aroused suspicions, as did the coating of colored wax on its surface, which suggested someone had tried to make it appear older than it was. Experts concluded that the piece was likely produced in the 19th century, when Renaissance-style furniture was all the rage among American industrialist tycoons—prompting many fakes to voyage across the Atlantic. Even the cabinet’s excessively florid style worked against it: “A present-day tendency to associate heavy forms, sharp carving and dense decorative detail with neo-Renaissance cabinetry perhaps explains why further suspicions arose. The decoration almost suggests 19th century horror vacui,” noted curator Jack Hinton and conservator Arlen Heginbotham in a 2006 article about the object.
Heginbotham looked past all that noisy decoration and zeroed in on the science. Dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, showed that the oak tree used in the object’s construction was harvested in the mid-1570s, and the surface wood and interior silk lining were carbon dated to the 15th and 16th centuries. Conservators then focused on the brass tacks used to attach the silk lining, whose appearance under the microscope—centuries later—would determine the date of their making.
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