Meet our curatorial sniffer dogs

Conservation dog handler supervising an appraisal

For April Fool's Day 2018 we ran the following story. Did you fall for it? We’re all aware that dogs have a good nose for treats, but did you know that some of them can also sniff out a masterpiece at 20 paces? We certainly didn’t, until one of our staff member’s dogs started taking a keen interest in a particular painting.

We care for one of the world’s largest art and heritage collections which includes paintings by the likes of Turner, William Blake, and even the Dutch Masters. With so many historic works of art in our care it’s not surprising that there are still a few secrets hidden among the brushstrokes - and we’ve discovered a surprising new way of unearthing them with the help of some four-legged friends.

A paws for thought

“Rex would just sit there staring at the painting all day and refuse to move,” said Canine Liaison Conservator, Pat Trick. “We couldn’t work out why, until the work was sent away for routine conservation work and they realised that it was a genuine Rembrandt.”

The team initially thought this was a one-off, until similar reports of dogs responding strangely to certain paintings started to emerge at other properties. We decided to take a closer look into this phenomenon, and realised that dogs’ heightened sense of smell meant that they could actually tell a genuine painting from a copy.

Video

Meet our conservation sniffer dogs

Following our discovery that dogs could sniff out priceless works of art, we've created a special team to help us uncover the secrets hidden among the collections we care for. Watch our video to meet some of our four-legged friends.

Sniffing out the truth

Our research suggests that it’s all down to the particular paints that artists used. Pigment analysis has long been a part of the art authentication process, with experts able to assign a broad time frame to a piece of artwork based on the pigments that were available at that time. Many artists also liked to use the same pigments across all of their works, providing another handy clue as to whether a painting is genuine or a copy. 

Although our sniffer dogs probably aren’t always aware whether a painting is a Canaletto or a Stubbs, the smell of the pigments they used seems to cause different reactions in certain dogs. We’ve even been able to identify breeds that are suited to picking out art from particular eras: Barney the schnauzer is our go-to dog for 18th-century works, while Agnes the terrier won’t even sniff anything that’s not neo-classical.

Our research shows that dogs can distinguish between different paint pigments.
Brain scan of dog
Our research shows that dogs can distinguish between different paint pigments.

Conserving hidden gems

Of course our human experts also play a vital role in helping us to identify and care for these works of art and we still use recognised techniques such as x-rays to help authenticate them, but with such a huge collection of art work the dogs have proved crucial in helping us to prioritise paintings that are likely to be hidden gems.

Thanks to your support we can continue to invest in the expertise of our curators, and care for these special paintings for generations to come. Not to mention the dog biscuits bill.
 

Conservation dog handler supervising an appraisal

Barney the schnauzer

Barney has a real nose for 18th-century works of art. He recently helped us re-date this portrait of 'Bungey', the favourite dog of Sir John Harington, which was formerly believed to have be painted around 1608.

Charlie the conservation spaniel

Charlie the spaniel

Charlie is one of our newer recruits, so he's still undergoing training to become a fully-fledged conservation sniffer dog. He still makes the occasional mistake, but given another year or so of practice we're sure he'll be able to tell the difference between a child's drawing and a piece by one of the Dutch Masters.