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Impressionist & Modern Art

A Year of Scientific Research at Sotheby's

One year ago, Sotheby’s acquired Orion Analytical, the leading materials analysis and consulting firm in the art world, and hired its founder, Jamie Martin, to establish a Department of Scientific Research. It was the first – and still only – department of its kind in the auction world. In just one year, Martin has made dramatic progress to realize the department’s mission: to integrate science with the business of Sotheby’s, and in so doing to provide its clients with a unique and unparalleled level of expertise.

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KAZIMIR MALEVICH, SUPREMATIST COMPOSITION WITH PLANE IN PROJECTION, 1915, UNDERGOING ANALYSIS IN THE NEW YORK LABORATORY.

When he came to Sotheby’s in late 2016, Martin brought with him three decades of experience and an astonishing record of success that ranged from revealing multi-million-dollar forgeries in the art market, to teaching at the Getty Conservation Institute and the FBI. Over the course of his career, Martin has conducted more than 1800 scientific investigations for museums, galleries, insurance companies and private collectors in five continents. 

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JAMES MARTIN, DIRECTOR OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH.

Since arriving last December, Martin has set up a state-of-the-art laboratory at Sotheby’s corporate headquarters in New York, a facility in London to serve the UK and Continental Europe, and is laying the groundwork for another in Hong Kong. In 2017, his team examined more than $100,000,000 of art. Their findings have proven pivotal in understanding the construction, composition, and condition of a range of items, from paintings and works on paper to furniture and sculpture – and even rare bottles of wine. 

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THE NEW YORK LABORATORY.

“On any given day,” says Martin, “we help our colleagues see hidden parts of works, and identify materials and techniques used to create works.” Working hand-in-hand with Sotheby’s specialists worldwide, the Scientific Research Team has provided investigative leads that have proven critical in helping the experts confirm attributions, deepen their understanding of the condition of works being offered for sale, and even help to resolve disputes.   

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LEFT: REBECCA POLLAK, ASSISTANT CONSERVATION SCIENTIST, AND SARAH LUND, TECHNICAL ART HISTORIAN AND RESEARCH COORDINATOR, IN THE NEW YORK LAB USING A FLUORESCENCE STEREOMICROSCOPE TO EXAMINE A QUESTIONED WORK. RIGHT: MARIA ECENARRO-CATRAIN, PROJECT ADMINISTRATOR, IN THE LONDON FACILITY, USING A SPECIALIZED INFRARED CAMERA TO LOOK FOR HIDDEN DETAILS IN AN OLD MASTER WORK.

Their fascinating work has not gone unnoticed. Over the summer, Martin and the New York laboratory were honored with the cover story of The Analytical Scientist. And, although confidentiality issues often rule out public discussion of individual case studies, Martin has made presentations to rapt audiences on the intersection of art and science. 

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LEFT: A PORTABLE XRF SPECTROMETER POSITIONED TO ANALYZE THE COMPOSITION OF OVERGLAZES ON A NEW ACQUISITION BY THE MUSCARELLE MUSEUM OF ART (WHO AUTHORIZED PUBLICATION OF THIS IMAGE). RIGHT: A 1989 PETRUS VINTAGE BEING USED FOR TRAINING PURPOSES; AS AN EXPERT FOR THE FBI, JAMIE FOUND THAT PAPER USED BY CONVICTED WINE FORGER RUDY KURNIAWAN  WAS FIRST MADE DECADES AFTER THE VINTAGE YEARS THAT KURNIAWAN PRINTED ON FAKE LABELS.

In October, Sotheby’s became only the fourth laboratory in the United States – along with the Met, the National Gallery and the Getty – to acquire a Bruker M6 Jetstream, revolutionary German x-ray fluorescence technology that maps the composition of works of art.

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LEFT: MARTIN AND THE NEW YORK LAB WERE FEATURED ON THE COVER OF THE ANALYTICAL SCIENTIST. RIGHT: MARTIN MAKING A PRESENTATION TO CLIENTS ABOUT THE INTERSECTION OF SCIENCE AND ART. 

At his laboratory in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Jamie continues to develop equipment and test new generations of scientific instruments for use at Sotheby’s.  Recently, he tested a brand new portable spectrometer that discriminates between natural and synthetic materials without the need for samples; Sotheby’s will deploy the spectrometer early next year in New York and London. He is now testing technology for use by specialists and cataloguers in their routine assessments of works, such as portable cameras that see through paint and other materials, to help detect restoration and other alterations.

 

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LEFT: THE AUTOMATED M6 JETSTREAM IN THE PROCESS OF MAKING MORE THAN 1 MILLION INDIVIDUAL ANALYSES OF AN IMPRESSIONIST WORK (OBSCURED HERE FOR CONFIDENTIALITY). RIGHT: A PAGE OF WATERCOLOR PIGMENTS FROM A 1880S WINSOR & NEWTON HANDBOOK BEING USED TO TEST A BRAND NEW SPECTROMETER IN WILLIAMSTOWN. 

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