NEW YORK – Paintings are usually described in terms of beauty, style, historical importance and value, but sometimes the characteristics that are the most important – their molecular composition – are overlooked. Even the most seasoned collector can be seduced into acquiring a work that seems to have everything they are looking for – a recognizable style that is the signature of a great master, say, or a composition from the most desirable period – only to discover that they have purchased a fake. Consider the sensational case of 40 forged “masterpieces” by Modern artists such as Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock sold to unsuspecting collectors for some $60 million by Knoedler; the 165-year-old New York gallery collapsed five years ago in the wake of the ensuing scandal after the truth about those paintings was revealed.    


Knoedler trafficked in these forgeries for 15 years, but it only took only a few days for James Martin, the founder of Orion Analytical, to determine that one of the Motherwells that passed through the gallery was not authentic. Analyzing a tiny sample of paint on the edge of the canvas, he determined that the pigment used by the actual artist (a forger working in a Queens garage) wasn’t invented until 10 years after the supposed Motherwell was painted. This was just one example of hundreds of forgeries that Martin has discovered using state-of-the-art techniques like Raman spectroscopy and a storehouse of knowledge built over three decades teaching at The Getty Conservation Institute, the FBI’s Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit, and other institutions. Martin has undertaken more than 1800 scientific investigations for museums, galleries, insurance companies and private collectors in five continents, earning him a reputation as one of the art world’s top scientists, conservators and educators; the fact that he is a talented artist in his own right also helps Martin detect stylistic cues that something isn’t quite right.   

Today, Sotheby’s announced that Martin will join the company and establish a Scientific Research Department, with on-site facilities in its flagship New York and London locations. Martin has consulted with Sotheby’s for decades, most recently helping the company determine that a painting previously thought to be by Dutch master Frans Hals was actually a modern-day forgery; based on Martin’s conclusion, Sotheby’s rescinded the sale and reimbursed the client in full, fulfilling its central pledge to stand by the authenticity of the objects it sells.    


Now that ownership of Orion has passed to Sotheby’s and he has joined the staff, Martin is travelling to the New York and London offices to scout out locations for the equipment he will need to examine objects that Sotheby’s specialists bring to his attention. We caught up with him briefly to pose a few questions about his fascinating career and the value he will bring to Sotheby’s clients.  

How did you get into this field?  
My passion for art and scientific curiosity led me to art conservation, where I found a life’s work preserving cultural property and the legacies of artists and craftspeople. Each day brings a new question, and a new opportunity to help fellow scholars and researchers unlock the mysteries of 4,000 years of art and artifacts.   

What are the most interesting cases you have worked on?  

There is a book to be written about the interesting cases I have worked on, from a paranoid collector, who, I discovered through Google, was a murder suspect – to the forger who kept dozens of cats, but didn’t think to keep the cats’ hair out of his forgeries – to the art dealer who sold fake Pollocks and de Koonings when he wasn’t driving his personal submarine around New York harbor.  

How many forgeries do you think could be easily detected with the aid of scientific analysis?  
Many, but not as many as could be more easily detected by Sotheby’s new tri-part collaboration of specialists, researchers and scientists.   

After joining Sotheby’s, will you continue to work with museums?  
Yes, and conservators.  Sotheby’s recognizes that scientific research is a collaborative endeavor, and has allocated about 20% of my time for teaching and collaboration with museums and conservators.    

How will Sotheby’s clients benefit from the Scientific Research Department you are establishing here?  
Orion and Sotheby’s have shared many of the same clients for years.  Now, they and other clients will find the same deep benches of expertise working together in one company, worldwide.  

What advice would you give collectors who are suspicious of works that they own?  
Seek reliable, objective expertise concerning the three essential elements of scholarly attribution, in this order: stylistic connoisseurship, provenance research and technical/scientific examination. For the latter, look for a Fellow in the American Institute of Conservation.      

Further reading:

“Orion rare if not unique in the art world”

“$80 Million Con - the Knoedler Gallery Art Forgery Scandal”  

“Testing Objects, scientific Examination and Materials Analysis”