James-Paul Brown Uses DNA Encoding to Guard Against Fraudulent and Forged Art

Originally published in RedOrbit Wednesday, 7 September 2005

Carpinteria artist James-Paul Brown’s paintings contain more than brushstrokes and pigment these days — some of his pieces are being painted with coded DNA.

The artist and his Brown Art Gallery in Ojai are working with Applied DNA Sciences Inc., a Los Angeles firm that creates custom plant DNA markers that are mixed in paint to guard against forgery and fraud.

Company officials hope the demonstration will show the product is successful and can be used by artists, museums or printers — not to mention many others — to protect their works.

“It applies to a huge amount of products out there, whether currency or luxury goods,” said Applied DNA Sciences President Peter Brocklesby. “… Anything you wish to authenticate that it’s the genuine article.” The biggest benefit he sees for artwork and items connected with documentation is that the DNA can act as a system for verifying a piece of art. It is expected to act as a deterrent to thieves and counterfeit artists, Brocklesby said.

“If you paint a fake Renoir, if it’s not marked with 20 different DNA markers, you’d better quit because you can fake the painting, but you can’t fake the DNA,” Brocklesby said.

The test in the Brown Art Gallery is the first in the U.S., he said. The company previously marked art in a gallery in China, where the technology was developed.

Gallery Director Frederick Schmid, who has decades of experience as a museum director and fine art insurance broker, said he sees the value of using various technologies to protect works.

Reproduction forgeries are getting better with new technology, which is one reason the U.S. had to upgrade its currency.

“A number of things over the years, over the decades, have been tried,” Schmid said. “We have to stay two steps ahead of our good thieves.” Guaranteeing authenticity helps protect brands and customers and increases trustworthiness, he said.

“The industry does take security and authenticity seriously,” Schmid said. “Vigilance in any number of capacities is essential. The use of botanical DNA appears to be relatively promising.” Brown has experienced theft with his own works. The artist has been commissioned to do paintings for the 2005 Winter Olympics, painted the portrait of Ronald Reagan hanging in the Reagan Library and other presidents and high-profile athletes.

When he first started out, the prolific painter often threw away pieces he didn’t like. People would come by and take them out of his trash cans.

“I got a call from a guy a few years ago who wanted to sell me my own painting,” he said.

Brown works out of a studio in a Carpinteria condo. The studio is full of paintings. Some are encased in bubble wrap for shipping, some hang on walls and others are in the garage. Upstairs, he has glass tables inside and outside on the balcony, where he paints.

Because many of his works are done with guache, an opaque watercolor, the paint easily can be blended with custom DNA.

Other applications include DNA ink pens to sign the artworks, DNA in the paper and DNA electronic markers on the frame.

Brown is excited by the science, which he foresees curbing the damage done to name brands by shoddy counterfeiting in all sorts of industries. It also could open up Internet commerce, giving buyers extra assurance that they receive an authentic piece.

“Right now, it’s the icing on the cake,” he said of the DNA security. “In five years, it’s going to be the cake.” Applied DNA Sciences advocates using its products to protect many products, from clothing and prescription drugs to luxury goods, like hand-crafted leather purses. The company just put a DNA encrypted hologram on 600 million DVDs made in China that can be used to track where and when each was made.

The hope is that Brown’s work will generate interest and perhaps new customers. Brown and his gallery are providing the materials, but there is no money changing hands in this partnership.

Brocklesby would not put a definite value on what DNA security might cost, because one work could have 30 DNA markers in various locations and another might have five. He said it would be a minimal expense when compared with the value of a piece.

“We’re talking dollars, not hundreds of dollars,” he said.

Applied DNA Sciences Inc. started in 2002. Some of its technology comes through an agreement with Biowell Technology Inc., a Taiwanese company.

Executive Vice President Adrian Butash said the technology used by the company took 10 years and $10 million to develop. He’s known Brown for about 12 years and contacted him for using the technology in his paintings.

As Applied DNA Sciences has built up its offerings, it has struggled financially. The company has reported only nominal revenue and accumulated losses of $51.86 million since its inception.

Butash said that was normal for a start-up company. He said the company is poised for business to boom, with several announcements coming out in the next three to six months.

In the art world, Butash said he expects DNA security will become standard within five years.

Brown said he would expect the idea to take hold first in museums where potential for theft, such as the armed theft of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” cannot be overlooked.

“I’d put DNA in every one of those paintings,” he said.

The next step would be to get high-profile artists involved to show by example what can be done, he said. Brown is the first to participate.