Even seasoned curators and collectors can be seduced into acquiring a work that seems to have everything they are looking for only to discover that what they have purchased is a skillfully executed fake, not a genuine masterpiece. But James Martin, Sotheby’s Director of Scientific Research, uses technology to uncover nearly undetectable mistakes in copies that appear flawless to the naked eye. In the video above, Martin and art historian Jonathan Lopez tell the fascinating story of the rise and fall of infamous art forger Han van Meegeren, whose early 20th-century copies of Vermeer and other masters were determined to be forgeries.
A top art world scientist and the founder of Orion Analytical, Martin joined Sotheby’s in 2016 and has since established on-site research centers in its New York and London locations – the first such facilities in any auction house. He brought with him a storehouse of knowledge built over three decades and more than 1,800 scientific investigations for museums, galleries, insurance companies and private collectors in five continents. One of the most high-profile of Martin’s cases involved 40 forged “masterpieces” by Modern artists such as Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko sold to unsuspecting collectors for some $60 million by the New York gallery Knoedler, which collapsed when the truth about the works was revealed.
Martin now uses state-of-the-art analysis 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.
Since joining Sotheby’s, have you continued to work with museums?
Yes, and conservators. Sotheby’s recognizes that scientific research is a collaborative endeavor, and has allocated about 20 percent 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.
Learn about scientific research at Sotheby’s.
For more about James Martin:
THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Where Art Forgeries Meet Their Match”
“$80 Million Con - the Knoedler Gallery Art Forgery Scandal”