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Jamie Martin in the offices of Sotheby’s in New York. Photograph: Joshua Bright for the Guardian.

​Class of 1989 WUDPAC alumnus James Martin has established an in-house conservation and analysis unit to help care for and assess artwork at Sotheby's. From the June 15, 2018 article by Samanth Subramanian for the Guardian US, entitled "How to Spot a Perfect Fake: The World's Top Art Forgery Detective":

The unravelling of a string of shocking old master forgeries began in the winter of 2015, when French police appeared at a gallery in Aix-en-Provence and seized a painting from display. Venus, by the German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder, to describe the work more fully: oil on oak, 38cm by 25cm, and dated to 1531. Purchased in 2013 by the Prince of Liechtenstein for about £6m, Venus was the inescapable star of the exhibition of works from his collection; she glowed on the cover of the catalogue. But an anonymous tip to the police suggested she was, in fact, a modern fake – so they scooped her up and took her away. The painting had been placed in the market by Giuliano Ruffini, a French collector, and its seizure hoisted the first flag of concern about a wave of impeccable fakes. Ruffini has sold at least 25 works, their sale values totalling about £179m, and doubts now shadow every one of these paintings. The authenticity of four, in particular, including the Cranach, has been contested; the art historian Bendor Grosvenor said they may turn out to be “the best old master fakes the world has ever seen.” Ruffini, who remains the subject of a French police investigation, has denied presenting these paintings as old masters at all. To the Art Newspaper, he protested: “I am a collector, not an expert.” . . .

What was most unnerving about the alleged fakes sold by Ruffini was how many people they fooled. The National Gallery in London displayed a small oil painting thought to be by the 16th-century artist Orazio Gentileschi – a battle-weary David, painted on an electric-blue slice of lapis lazuli; the work is now suspect. A portrait of a nobleman against a muddy background was sold by Sotheby’s in 2011, to a private collector, as a Frans Hals; the buyer paid £8.5m. Sotheby’s also sold an oil named Saint Jerome, attributed to the 16th-century artist Parmigianino, in a 2012 auction, for $842,500. With care, the catalogue only ventured that the work was from the “circle of” Parmigianino– an idiom to convey that it was painted by an artist influenced by, and perhaps a pupil of, Parmigianino. But the entry also cited several experts who believed it was by Parmigianino himself. . . . When Sotheby’s sells an artwork, it offers a five-year guarantee of refund if the object proves to be a counterfeit – “a modern forgery intended to deceive”, as its terms specify. In 2016, after uncertainty crackled over the Hals and the Parmigianino, the auction-house sent them to Orion Analytical, a conservation science lab in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Orion was run, and staffed almost solely by, James Martin, who has loaned his forensic skills to the FBI for many art forgery investigations. Within days, Martin had an answer for Sotheby’s: both the Hals and the Parmigianino were fakes. . . . In December 2016, in a signal of how attribution scandals have spooked the market, Sotheby’s took the unprecedented step of buying Orion Analytical, becoming the first auctioneer to have an in-house conservation and analysis unit. . . .

​James Martin using his stereo fluorescence microscope in his New York lab. Photograph: Joshua Bright for the Guardian.

Martin, a tall man with lumber-beam shoulders, has a voice that never surpasses a murmur. He is a consummate nerd; find someone who looks at you the way Martin looks at his Fourier-transform infrared microscope. He trained as a conservator of paintings, but now he assays them: picks out their chemical constituents, inspects pigments and binders, peers under their washes of colour. From a painting’s materials, he can extract the vital detail of when it could, or could not, have been created.

The field of scientific art conservation is not a crowded one; Martin, who set up the first for-profit art lab in the US, has been consulted in nearly every major fraud case in the past 25 years, often working alongside the FBI or other investigators. When he is described as the premier forensic detective working in art today, the accolade comes not only from people such as John Cahill, a New York lawyer who has managed dozens of art transactions, and who called Martin “hands-down the best in the business,” but also from those on the other side of the fence, so to speak. Beltracchi, the German forger, told me that, after his arrest, he had seen an assortment of technical studies collected by the police and the prosecution. He remembered Martin’s well. “His reports contained the most accurate results. His reports were factually neutral and without unrealistic guesses.” By folding Martin into its staff, Sotheby’s has given itself a muscular chance to stamp out problems of attribution before they flare into spectacular, expensive affairs. But it’s hard not to feel, at the same time, that it has cornered a precious resource, at a moment when the art world needs him most. . . . Martin spent much of last year setting up a new lab in what used to be a photo studio on the fifth floor of the Sotheby’s headquarters in Manhattan. Soon, he will also have a London facility, in the building where the Beatles once recorded A Taste of Honey for the BBC.

To read the full feature article, visit the Guardian US website here.

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WUDPAC alumnus James Martin has established an in-house conservation and analysis unit to help care for and assess artwork at Sotheby's.

​WUDPAC alumnus James Martin has established an in-house conservation and analysis unit to help care for and assess artwork at Sotheby's.

6/21/2018
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489
  • art-conservation@udel.edu