How Nuclear Fallout Catches Fake Antiques

“I think one country with nuclear weapons is one country too many.” —Mohamed ElBaradei

In A Nutshell

There are certain isotopes that didn’t exist at all in the natural environment, or appeared in lesser proportions, before detonation of the nuclear bomb in 1945. Now, curators and collectors can test for these new elements in things like paintings or supposed vintage bottles of whiskey to find out if they’re dealing with the real thing or a counterfeit.

The Whole Bushel

In addition to the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, over 2,000 other nuclear bombs were detonated throughout the world for testing or demonstration purposes. Not surprisingly, this massive amount of explosions doesn’t come without an environmental impact. One such change is the presence of the isotopes cesium-137 and strontium-90—neither of which existed in nature prior to the atomic bomb. These isotopes have since made their way into the soil where they are absorbed by plants, like linseed and flax, which are used to create oil paints. Even after processing the plants, these isotopes remain in the paint.

Because the first nuclear bomb wasn’t detonated until 1945, any art created prior to that time shouldn’t contain either cesium-137 or strontium-90. So, if someone is trying to pass off a famous pre-1945 painting as legitimate, savvy art curators can now test for these two isotopes to pinpoint even the most convincing forgeries. If the isotopes are found, the painting is obviously a fake.

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Similarly, before the atomic bomb, carbon-14 and carbon-12 existed in the environment in an equal ratio. However, after decades of nuclear testing, there is now more carbon-14 in the atmosphere and, consequently, more carbon-14 in all living things. Plants used to make alcoholic beverages are no exception, which means aficionados can have the carbon ratios of their wine or whiskey tested before they hand over tens of thousands of dollars for a 200-year-old bottle.

Incidentally, the scientists doing the analyzing have found more frauds than authentically old samples.

Show Me The Proof

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