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Electronic Imaging & Signal Processing

John Asmus: Optical techniques and the mysterious Mona Lisa

A lifetime in lasers began with one of Maiman's originals at Caltech, and has led this art-restoration pioneer to analyze and restore some of the world's most famous artworks.

15 April 2014, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.3201403.08

A mysterious phone call from an oil tycoon, a rendezvous in a Swiss parking garage, and a phone call to the Louvre from Walter Cronkite. These have all been a part of the fascinating story of John Asmus as he developed revolutionary techniques using photonics to authenticate and restore art.

Since 1974 John Asmus has been a Research Physicist with the Institute for Pure and Applied Physical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He earned his PhD from the California Institute of Technology (physics and quantum electronics) and was a co-founder of the Center for Art/Science Studies at UCSD. He has published 125 articles in professional journals and holds 25 patents. Over a 30 year period, Asmus introduced the use of holography, lasers, ultrasonic imaging, digital image processing, and nuclear magnetic resonance to art-conservation practice. He has applied these tools to the problems of divestment, analysis, interpretation, and presentation associated with diverse art-conservation activities including the Qin-Dynasty Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi'an, the Ice-Age paintings of Lascaux, and the discovery of the hidden Mona Lisa "pendant".

Asmus has been instrumental in the founding of international professional societies such as Lasers for the Conservation of Artworks (LACONA) and Associazone Italiana Prove Non Distruttive. In 1990 he was a recipient of a Rolex Award for Enterprise for the restoration of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Twenty-three years ago the heirs of the late Joseph Pulitzer asked Asmus to examine a painting known as the "Isleworth Mona Lisa" that was in the family collection of fine art. This invitation was extended in response to his ten-year study of the varnishes and pentimenti of the Louvre "Mona Lisa." Asmus's studies led to the conclusion that the intricate geometrical principles employed in the two paintings were identical even though individual features are different in both size and proportion. Thus it was clear that the Isleworth portrait was not a mere copy of the painting in the Louvre. Subsequently, the Isleworth painting has passed every scientific test available in art conservation science from radiocarbon dating to digital-image age regression.