Poems by Rabbie Burns can now be distinguished from forgeries

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Telling the difference between genuine works written by Robert Burns and thousands of forged manuscripts just became easier, thanks to a new test. Experts developed a chemical test (pictured) to distinguish which inks and types of paper he used to write each of his poems


Scientists have developed a new chemical test which can differentiate between genuine works by Robert Burns and thousands of forgeries.

To create the new test, researchers pinpointed the types of ink and paper favoured by the Bard of Ayrshire when writing his poems.

This information was fed into a computer to teach the machine learning algorithm to be able to classify forgeries from the genuine article, which can sell for up to £90,000 ($120,000) at auction. 

Researchers then tested out the system on known fakes and real works by the 18th Century poet, best known for writing New Years Eve anthem ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

Authenticating manuscripts can be a complicated process that typically damages parts of the original paper or ink.

However, this new chemical test does not leave a visible trace on the historic work, which its creators will ensure it’s adopted as a new standard for validating historic texts.

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Telling the difference between genuine works written by Robert Burns and thousands of forged manuscripts just became easier, thanks to a new test. Experts developed a chemical test (pictured) to distinguish which inks and types of paper he used to write each of his poems

Authenticating manuscripts can be a complicated and at times destructive process, with parts of the paper or ink damaged. However the new test leaves no visible trace and its creators hope it could become adopted as a standard way of validating historic texts

Authenticating manuscripts can be a complicated and at times destructive process, with parts of the paper or ink damaged. However the new test leaves no visible trace and its creators hope it could become adopted as a standard way of validating historic texts

Scientists from Glasgow University developed the new method using a technique called direct infusion mass spectrometry.

This extracts minuscule samples of ink directly from the surface of the paper, while causing minimal damage to the original 18th Century work.

The ink samples are fed into the computer system, which the researchers had taught to identify the types of ink favoured by Robert Burns during his lifetime.

Unlike existing tests, the method developed by Glasgow University does not cause any visible damage the work, since the ink sample is so small.

Tests were initially performed on a known 150-year-old fake, before being performed on real material from Burns.

Robert Burns’ writings have been subject to numerous forgeries over the years.  

An original work might sell for between £6,000 to £90,000 ($8,000 to $120,000), while manuscripts of dubious authenticity continue to appear at auctions.

Now the new testing method has been developed, the team hope it will be used to detect unknown forgeries, both from Burns and other writers.

This information was fed into a computer programme which could classify forgeries from the genuine article. The system was tested on known fakes and real works by the poet, best known for writing Auld Lang Syne. This images shows a note from Burns to himself

This information was fed into a computer programme which could classify forgeries from the genuine article. The system was tested on known fakes and real works by the poet, best known for writing Auld Lang Syne. This images shows a note from Burns to himself

HOW DID SCIENTISTS DEVELOP A TEST FOR FORGED ROBERT BURNS MANUSCRIPTS?

Scientists from University of Glasgow have developed a method to distinguish fake and real works by the poet Robert Burns.

With the help of Burns collector Dr William Zachs, the team were able to look at originals and fakes to determine the type of ink used.

They were helped by a handwritten book owned by Dr Zachs which contained recipes for all sorts of liquids, including inks. 

The ink recipes were transcribed and PhD student James Newton spent the first year of the project mixing carbonised ivory, sulphuric acid and stale beer to make ivory black, and grinding iron galls with wine to make iron gall ink. 

The scientists were able to lift ink from the copies using a simple pipetting process that could be performed outside the lab, and that crucially did not visibly damage the original material.

Details of the ink and paper from the documents were analysed, the data gathered and machine-learning algorithms were used to develop a classifier for the documents.

Tests were initially performed on one of Smith’s handwritten 150-year-old fakes before being performed on real Burns’ material. 

The classifier – or ‘Support Vector Machine’ – could then be used to help predict real or fake Burns’ manuscripts. 

In total, the team tested 12 documents – three real Burns’ documents selected from different periods of the bard’s life, and nine fakes from the 1890s by notorious forger Alexander Smith. 

Sixteen significant differences were found distinguishing the Burns and Smith manuscripts. Significant differences between the inks and paper were also detected in Burns manuscripts.

Speaking to MailOnline, Glasgow University researcher Karl Burgess said: ‘There was, and is a considerable market for original manuscripts. 

‘Smith – the forger we focused on for our paper – faked many Burns, James Hogg and Mary Queen of Scots manuscripts in the 1890s, for which he was imprisoned.

‘You can often tell by knowing Burns’ handwriting, or sentence structure. That takes a lot of expertise. There are also chemical methods like ours but they’re either not as precise, or damage the manuscripts.’

‘We developed the tool on known forgeries and known real Burns, so we’ve not yet uncovered an original forgery. 

‘But, now we have a good method, we want to extend the work to other authors, time periods and types of manuscript. 

‘We think this could become a standard method for library special collections or auctioneers to use.’ 

Scientists extracted a minimally destructive destructive sample of ink directly from the paper's surface of each source. This image shows an original Burns poem, The Five Carlins

This image shows a letter Burns wrote to the Reverend of a church

Scientists extracted a minimally destructive destructive sample of ink directly from the paper’s surface of each source. These images shows original Burns works, the poem The Five Carlins (left ) and a letter he wrote to the Reverend of a church (right)

A machine learning algorithm was then used to develop a 'classifier' that could accurately distinguish true Burns works from the fakes. This image shows a forgery of the poem Holy Fair

This image shows a forgery of the poem Dainty Davie

A machine learning algorithm was then used to develop a ‘classifier’ that could accurately distinguish true Burns works from the fakes. The image on the left shows a forgery of the poem Holy Fair while a fake copy of the Dainty Davie poem is seen on the right

With the help of Burns collector Dr William Zachs, the team were able to look at originals and fakes to determine the type of ink used.

The researchers were helped by a handwritten book, owned by Dr Zachs, which contained recipes for all sorts of liquids, including inks, from the period.

The ink recipes were transcribed and PhD student James Newton spent the first year of the project mixing carbonised ivory, sulphuric acid, and stale beer to make ivory black, and grinding iron galls with wine to make iron gall ink. 

The scientists were able to lift ink from the copies using a simple pipetting process that could be performed outside the lab.

Crucially, this does not visibly damage the original material.

Details of the ink and paper from the documents were analysed, the data gathered and machine-learning algorithms were used to develop a ‘classifier’ for the documents.

Tests were initially performed on one of Smith’s handwritten 150-year-old fakes before being performed on real Burns’ material. 

The classifier, also known as a ‘Support Vector Machine’, could then be used to help predict real or fake Burns’ manuscripts.

In total, the team tested 12 documents – three real Burns’ documents selected from different periods of the bard’s life, and nine fakes from the 1890s by notorious forger Alexander Smith. 

Sixteen significant differences were found distinguishing the Burns and Smith manuscripts. Significant differences between the inks and paper were also detected in Burns manuscripts.

In the The Holy Fair manuscript by Smith and in the letter written by Burns, the team detected iron gall ink, and in the Dainty Davie poem by Smith, they detected the presence of ivory black.

In the Five Carlins manuscript by Burns, they detected both ink features, proving that Burns, as was common at the time, mixed inks to obtain a desired lustre and consistency in his writing.

The full findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Robert Burns' (pictured) writings have been subject to numerous forgeries over the years. An original work might sell for between £6,000 to £90,000 ($8,000 to $120,000) and manuscripts of dubious authenticity continue to appear at auctions

Robert Burns’ (pictured) writings have been subject to numerous forgeries over the years. An original work might sell for between £6,000 to £90,000 ($8,000 to $120,000) and manuscripts of dubious authenticity continue to appear at auctions

WHO WAS ROBERT BURNS AND WHY IS HE CONTROVERSIAL?

Robert Burns was born 25 January 1759 and died 21 July 1796 and was widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.

He was  a high-ranking member of the Freemasons and much of his popularity stems from the fact he was a farmer’s son who could speak to the common man.

But he also led a varied social life which exposed him to different sections of society.

In his poems, he often used small subjects to express big ideas and he is often thought of as a pioneer of the Romantic movement.

For instance, in ‘To a Mouse’, he draws a comparison between the lives of mice and men. 

He was a source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism after his death.

Burns has a national day named after him on the 25th January each year. 

At New Year, his poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is still sung to this day.

For 200 years his birthday has been celebrated with suppers in his honour. 

The poet Liz Lochhead outed Robert Burns as a sex pest, highlighting a 1788 letter written to Bob Ainslie in which Burns implies he raped his pregnant girlfriend Jean Armour.

He bragged of giving his lover a ‘thundering scalade [a military attack breaching defences] that electrified the very marrow of her bones’, and said he ‘f****d her until she rejoiced’.

Lochhead described his letter as a ‘disgraceful sexual boast’.

‘[It] seemed very like a rape of his heavily pregnant girlfriend. It’s very, very Weinsteinian’, she said.

‘Not only did Burns make Weinsteinian claims in his correspondence, his poetry abounds with physical violence against women’, writes Daniel Cook, senior lecturer in English at the University of Dundee in The Conversation.

‘Not published until after his death, Merry Muses of Caledonia is stuffed with the bawdiest songs you’re ever likely to read’, he writes.

However, Dr Cook says these works can help us to reconsider human concerns.

‘After Weinstein, the time is right to reevaluate how we respond to literary traditions’, he writes.

‘Rather than using literature (or private correspondence) to out so-called sex pests, though, we can use it as a vehicle for understanding the long history of sex pesting.’

 





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