MFA researcher drops in at ‘F for Fake’ screening

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Visitors waited to enter the Museum of Fine Arts’ Fenway entrance.
Visitors waited to enter the Museum of Fine Arts’ Fenway entrance.Globe Photo

When Richard Newman studies a piece of art to determine its authenticity, his techniques are worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

"Sometimes there might be an anomaly, a particular pigment in the paint that was created after the artist's death," Newman says of one potential red flag. "But even if the pigment was around, you can ask, looking at the artist's other work, 'Was it likely they would have used it?' "

As the head of scientific research at the Museum of Fine Arts, Newman would seem the perfect person to speak at the Coolidge Corner Theatre's "Science on Screen" presentation Monday of Orson Welles's 1975 film "F for Fake." The experimental movie — it was Welles's last — explores questions of authorship and authenticity while profiling notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory, hoax-biographer Clifford Irving, Welles's romantic partner Oja Kodar, and Welles himself.


Though it was panned upon release, "F for Fake" has been critically reevaluated since and is now considered a treatise on the nature of illusion as it pertains to art forgery. That's where Newman comes in. At the MFA, he uses an array of tools and technologies to analyze pieces, identifying the materials used in objects and occasionally applying scientific processes to ascertain works's authenticity.

"It's a peculiar film," Newman says of "F for Fake." "It is a documentary, but on the other hand it's almost tongue-in-cheek in places . . . [Welles] has a lot of agendas, and it's about him as much as the forger."

For 11 years, the Coolidge's "Science on the Screen" series has been treating movie buffs to speaker/film pairings addressing a variety of topics, from the neural basis of musical improvisation in "8 Mile" to accidental scientific discoveries related to the time-travel picture "Primer."

While "F for Fake" does play with some of the challenges Newman faces professionally, he plans to steer the conversation away from Welles's film and discuss a "more scientific" approach to analyzing art. He hopes the audience leaves with a greater appreciation of the complexities of scientific art analysis.


"It's not so straightforward some of the time, and there can be disagreement among scientists" when it comes to determining forgeries, he says.

"We can build a strong case, a less strong case, or a shaky case for the object's authenticity," says Newman. "Those are all interesting in their own ways."