UN atomic watchdog fights not just spread of nuclear arms but counterfeit

The United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, better known for its efforts to combat nuclear smuggling and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, is now helping countries to crack down on the illegal trade in counterfeit art – ranging from ancient Babylonian statues to renaissance paintings – a major source of international crime.The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has teamed up with experts from France’s famous Louvre museum and 14 other countries across Europe, South America, Africa and Asia to use nuclear science to identify authentic artworks from phoneys.It is just one of the agency’s many less sung initiatives, which include using a radiation-based “sterile insect technique” against malaria-transmitting mosquitoes to stanch a disease that kills as many as 3,000 people each day in sub-Saharan Africa alone.In the art initiative, for example, neutron activation and ion beam analysis performed at the Louvre exposed a portrait of Renaissance French potter Bernard Palissy as a fake, revealing that the paint from the artist’s signature was scribed two centuries after Palissy’s death.The sensitive analysis also sheds light on the lives of ancient cultures. A statue of an Ishtar goddess discovered near Babylon, for example, showed that the figurine’s eyes and navel were fashioned with the most ancient rubies found in the Middle East, rather than red glass or garnets as previously thought. The analysis provided evidence of a previously unknown gem trade route between southeast Asia and Mesopotamia during the 1st century BC.The reaction from shooting a beam of neutrons or protons at a sample area of an artwork reveals a wealth of information, including the trace elements present, which help scientists to identify the origin and age without causing damage. Even the minutest analytical quantities can be traced safely and accurately.IAEA chemist Matthias Rossbach says law enforcement personnel could use portable elemental analyzers at borders to help combat art trafficking. The agency plans to extend nuclear analysis this year to Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, China, Malaysia, Syria, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Croatia and Hungary, with technical assistance from France, Germany, Greece and Poland.According to the global police coordination centre, Interpol, illicit trade in art and cultural objects is sustained by demand from the art market, the opening of borders, improvements in transport systems and the political instability in some countries.

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