Unlocking Secrets Within: Nuclear Technology & Artistic Treasures

Published Date: 2 February 2007

© The Saliera is in nuclear detectives' hands, as curators at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum use X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, or XRF technology, to investigate the chemical composition of the US $60 million Renaissance sculpture and how best to protect it. Described as "one of the greatest art thefts in history," the break-in and theft of Saliera from the Vienna museum made headlines in May 2003.  It was recovered by police in 2006, after they unearthed the precious sculpture buried in woods in Austria. The most obvious damage is a deep scratch at the breast of the "goddess of earth" figure on Saliera. Most probably it was caused by the crowbar the thief used to smash the showcase it was stored in at the museum. The XRF is uncovering deeper secrets about Cellini's sculpture. The data show that the gold in the Saliera is very pure, about 90%. The composition of the very sensitive, partly flaking enamel still has to be further evaluated. Primary photons produced by an X-ray tube are beamed at the Saliera. The beam is focused by an X-ray lens at a selected spot on the sample. The analysis takes just a few minutes. The peaks that can be seen in the measured spectrum reveal the exact elements Cellini used to fashion his master work. The XRF technique was also used to examine the tip of David's nose, analyzing dust and dirt before Michelango's masterpiece could be safely cleaned. It is one of many nuclear-based techniques that is used to study art, from restoration to archaeology and the preservation of cultural artefacts. Around 60 scientists from two dozen countries are now working with the IAEA on nuclear applications for art and cultural preservation. At Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, conservation scientist Dr. Katharina Uhlir shoots precise X-ray beams at Saliera.  She was trained by scientists at the IAEA's Seibersdorf laboratories on how to use the portable XRF. Recent improvements to the XRF instrument were made at the IAEA Laboratories in Seibersdorf.  In cooperation with the Atomic Institute of the Austrian Universities, Vienna University of Technology they have enhanced the spectrometers' portability and potency.  The IAEA has loaned the machine to Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum free-of-charge. The invisible rays do not destroy or harm the treasured art. The instrument's portability allows in-situ analysis since the instrument can be moved to the precious masterwork. The information from the XRF is giving conservators at the Kunsthistorisches Museum the best chance to faithfully restore the Saliera for future generations.  It's expected to be back on public display in early 2008.