Metal is traditionally used in art to make jewellery, masks and sculptures. Weapons, coins and tools can also contain decorative elements. The Metals Lab has the necessary expertise to uncover the secrets of metal art objects or metal elements in monuments.
Our experts carry out in-depth physicochemical research of art objects made of metal:
- material-technological analysis of gold and silver alloys in goldsmithing
- research into the composition, corrosion and patination of copper alloys and archaeological bronze objects
- research into the composition of Celtic coins
- studies in connection with the restoration of decorative and functional metal elements in monuments
- investigation into enamels on metal, such as the famous champlevé enamels from Limoges and the Mosan goldsmith’s art.
Our clients include museums, local authorities, churchwardens, art dealers and private collectors. Independent restorers can call on our expertise to gather a maximum of information to support their intervention. We also act as co-supervisors for master’s and doctoral theses, for example at the VUB and the ULB.
How a study is carried out depends on the information requested and the nature of the item.
- Non-destructive qualitative analysis of a metal alloy does not damage the metal surface. For a non-destructive quantitative analysis, we strip corrosion from a surface of about one square millimetre and only take a tiny sample if necessary. In doing so, we can determine the chemical composition of an alloy and give a historical interpretation of the work of art.
- During a metallographic analysis, we examine a micro sample of an item for various parameters, such as the internal metal structure, porosity and contamination. This allows us to better understand the item's production technique and corrosion phenomena in order to identify a sustainable conservation treatment. In addition, the findings enrich our knowledge of technological history.
- In the case of ‘finished’ metals, we investigate the nature of the gilding, patination or other finishing techniques.
Our years of expertise and excellent infrastructure guarantee optimal research results. For all our investigations, we have a wide range of analytical techniques at our disposal. Our extensive database is based on our research over the past thirty years.
We can consult the Scientific Imagery Unit at any time. This allows us to substantiate our technological studies extensively. We also exchange knowledge and data with international expert groups. As a federal scientific institution, we are in close contact with the regional archaeological services, which enables us to follow up on discoveries quickly. Finally, we have an ongoing collaboration with the Monuments and Monument Decoration Lab, the Decoration of Monuments Unit and the Preventive Conservation Unit.
In the spotlight
The Metals Lab is involved in many fascinating studies and projects. For example, we supervised ‘Colorando Auro’, an investigation into the colouring of gold in the Middle Ages conducted by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO). Leen Wouters: "Restoration treatments and cleaning procedures have been causing irreparable damage to artworks due to a lack of knowledge of old coloring techniques. We wish to avoid this in the future. Within the 'Colorando Auro' framework, we unravelled the various reaction mechanisms that occurred during the colouring of gold and identified the results of those recipes. We also looked at the possible consequences of ageing and various cleaning techniques. These new insights should allow us to choose the right techniques for treating precious metals."
To restore the Bassinia fountain on the market square of Huy, we carried out extensive material-technical research. The study contributed to the historical reconstruction of the fountain's structure and provided valuable information to identify the most suitable restoration method.
Anyone wishing to learn more about the possibilities of material-technical information in scientific research can visit the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp. In the didactic section of Paul and Dora Janssen-Arts permanent exhibition, you can watch a video about the contribution our research can make.