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Mona Lisa’s Newest Secret: Looking Lovely Under LED Lights

Visitors take photos of the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre museum in Paris

Photograph by Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Visitors take photos of the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre museum in Paris

As governments around the world ban old-style incandescent bulbs, many people fret that high-tech lighting will bathe their surroundings in ghoulish blue. Some have even taken to hoarding old bulbs. Relax, folks: Even the Mona Lisa is now lit by light-emitting-diode spotlights—and she looks as luminous as ever.

The Louvre offered journalists a first peek today at the Da Vinci masterpiece illuminated by newly installed LED technology. It’s part of a multiyear contract with Toshiba Lighting & Technology (6502:JP), which started outfitting the world’s largest museum with LED lights in 2010. At the Louvre, curators spent months with Toshiba technicians to find lighting with an optimal blend of intensity and color to showcase its most famous work. As for those dreaded cold-blue tones? The lighting was adjusted to minimize them.

Admirers of the enigmatic lady are delighted with the results. As restorers applied coats of varnish over the centuries, her skin had taken on a yellowish cast when viewed in daylight, and some parts of the canvas had faded, says Vincent Delieuvin, curator of the Louvre’s 16th-century Italian paintings department. “Thanks to the new lighting, we now have a better idea of the painting hidden behind varnish.”

Actually, the Louvre didn’t have much choice about replacing its old lighting. Due to tough European Union regulations, most traditional incandescent bulbs disappeared from European stores by the end of 2012. The U.S. is moving in the same direction, with most incandescent bulbs to be removed from the market by 2014. For most household users, that leaves a choice between LED, a semiconductor-based technology that’s often used for indicator lights on electronic equipment, or compact fluorescent lights (CFL), those opaque white bulbs that often come in spiral form.

LED bulbs are generally more efficient and last longer than CFLs, but they also cost considerably more. The good news for customers, though, is that prices are coming down. Osram, the light bulb unit being spun off by Germany’s Siemens (SI), is introducing an LED bulb in Germany this month that will cost €9.95 ($13), a price reduction of one-third. Dutch electronics group Philips (PHG) and U.S.-based Cree (CREE) also are introducing lower-priced LED lamps. Analysts at consultant IHS (IHS) predict sales of LED technology will more than triple from 2012 to 2015.

While most consumers will probably opt for plain-vanilla LED at home, the industry is peddling advanced systems that can do lots more than simply turn on and off. Toshiba, for example, says it is developed store lighting systems to create an ambience that subtly encourages customers to linger and continue shopping. It’s also selling office lighting with a blend of color and intensity “that makes you feel more energetic,” says Noel Marciniak, the company’s European product manager.

Guess Mona Lisa won’t be the only one smiling under LED lights.

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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