Forensic scientists usually stay behind the scenes, shining a strong light on fine art. Sotheby’s appointment of James Martin as its director of scientific research—and its acquisition of the firm he founded, Orion Analytical—has turned the spotlight on the experts.
Prior to the recent art market boom, scientific laboratories for art were mostly the preserve of institutions. But in recent years, small businesses focused on conservation have begun offering some types of analysis to private clients. There are now a handful of dedicated art labs, of which Orion was perhaps the best known.
The establishment of the first in-house scientific research department at a major auction house “is indicative of where the market is going”, says Colette Loll, the founder of the specialist firm Art Fraud Insights, based in Washington, DC. “It’s all about mitigating risk.”
Sotheby’s move has also effectively taken off the market a leading figure in a niche and fragmented field just as demand from buyers, and their lawyers, is growing. “There is a hole that hopefully someone will fill, but it takes entrepreneurial nerve to leave a museum job and do this… it’s not for the faint of heart,” says John Cahill, a lawyer who represented two plaintiffs in suits related to fakes sold by the Knoedler gallery.
This Goya forgery was painted on top of an earlier portrait of a different woman
The sector has considerable barriers to entry. Expensive equipment and lengthy training are only the start; analysts also need to be comfortable being the bearers of bad news, as most works are questioned for a reason. Their findings can be dragged into lawsuits. Martin’s testimony last year that a consultant for Knoedler had asked him to alter a report regarding works purportedly by Robert Motherwell was a turning point in the ultimately settled case brought against Knoedler by Sotheby’s chairman Domenico De Sole.
For Sotheby’s, which under chief executive Tad Smith has spent much of the past 12 months adding in-house expertise to its core auction business, Martin’s hire adds distinction. The new department will primarily support the auction house’s specialists and researchers rather than its clients directly.
If Martin can weed out even a few major fakes before they arrive on the auction block, the firm’s investment will probably prove cost-effective. Last October, Sotheby’s reimbursed the buyer of an £8.4m painting purportedly by Frans Hals after Martin identified modern materials in the work. The seller says that more forensic analysis needs to be done before making a final judgment.
In January, the auction house confirmed that it was reimbursing a client $842,500 for a work it sold in 2012 as from the circle of the 16th-century artist Parmigianino but which was found to be “undoubtedly a forgery”, according to a Sotheby’s statement. The auction house submitted both works to Martin when he was at Orion.
The value of forensic analysis is expected to grow as authentication boards shut down, art historians become reluctant to offer opinions, and technology improves. “Forensic analysis can see more deeply and more subtly into works than it could even ten or 15 years ago,” says Jack Flam, the president of the Dedalus Foundation, which gives opinions on the authenticity of works by its founder, Robert Motherwell, and which used forensics to identify Knoedler fakes. He calls Sotheby’s acquisition of Orion “rather brilliant”.
In a field riddled with disputes, one more expert view—particularly with the comfort of science behind it—can make a huge difference. “When you have someone who can speak to methods that are generally reliable and thus admissible in federal court, it’s tough to beat,” says Jordan Arnold, the senior managing director of K2 Intelligence, who oversaw several art fraud cases when he was an assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
Nevertheless, some think the emphasis on technology is overkill. “Science is never black and white,” says Stuart Lochhead, the managing director at Daniel Katz Gallery. “You are relying on the calibration of a machine, how samples are taken. There’s a bit of a concern that everything will now have to be tested.” Still, he acknowledges the value of certain analyses, citing thermoluminescence testing, which can determine in what century an object was made.
Even the scientists admit their methods are not fail-safe. “Just like in any other industry, I’ve seen bad reports and junk science,” Loll says. Some regard seemingly objective methods, like the identification of an artist’s fingerprints in a work, as too easy to manipulate. Forgers can also go to great lengths to use historically accurate materials. Martin describes forensic analysis as a “powerful tool to understand art, especially when used to support scholarly connoisseurship and historical research, as part of a tripartite model”.
While forensic analysis is often used when there is a major question about an expensive work, such as a provenance gap, collectors are increasingly using it to understand better how to care for their holdings. Vittorio Calabrese, the director of the Olnick Spanu collection of post-war Italian art, has been working with a laboratory in Rome. “Scientific analysis is quite important to assess the stability of the various unusual or unconventional materials,” he says.
Not every collector will request pigment analysis before handing over their credit card, though. “Buyers are still reluctant to do a lot of pre-purchase research,” Cahill says, adding that even on transactions over $100m, deeper analysis is not always taken up. Some collectors do not want to offend the dealer or appear “uncool”, as Cahill puts it, while others bristle at the additional expense. Tests start under $1,000, but more molecular investigations, such as pigment analyses, can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Although the legal obligation to ensure a work’s authenticity usually falls on the seller, Cahill says it can be “wise” for a buyer to take such measures. Nicholas Eastaugh, director of London-based Art Analysis & Research, says forensic analysis should be standard when purchasing art “in the same way as when you buy a house, you get a survey done”.
Rapid developments in technology could make authentication debates a thing of the past. New options include a tamper-proof label or embedded tag encoded with a digital record. Lawrence Shindell, the chairman of Aris Title Insurance, which sponsors the non-profit i2M Center, likens i2M labels to vehicle identification numbers in the car industry. By scanning a label on a work with an app, individuals can confirm its authenticity, add to its provenance and even record details of its conservation. Tagsmart, meanwhile, offers synthetic DNA tags for artists to apply before a work leaves the studio (Marc Quinn and Idris Khan are among the early adopters).
Steve Cooke, the chief product officer at Tagsmart, praises the “growing understanding of what is happening in materials at a molecular, or even a quantum, level”, but warns: “You can present artists with really cogent, scientific reasons [to incorporate tags] but you often get pushback.” The scientists still have their work cut out.