Sotheby’s declares war on art forgery

Sotheby’s auction house announced its acquisition of specialist art investigation firm Orion Analytical in a press release on Monday (5 December 2016).

Founded by James Martin in 2000, Orion Analytical began life as a niche firm offering materials analysis and consultancy. Over the years it has built a reputation for expertise in researching and investigating fake artworks. Now Sotheby’s is bringing this expertise in-house and has appointed Martin director of its newly created scientific research department.

In addition to working with Sotheby’s for the past 20 years, Martin has been involved in several high-profile art fraud investigations for the FBI. Most recently, he was instrumental to the investigation of fake Abstract Expressionist works sold by the now-defunct Knoedler Gallery in New York. Martin’s cutting-edge techniques include technical imaging, magnified visual inspection, elemental analysis and molecular analysis.

In its press release, Sotheby’s stated that Martin’s work would be invaluable to attributing and valuing works, testing research hypotheses and offering investigative leads. International Department Head of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings, Alexander Bell, said Martin’s experience, diagnostic techniques and ‘deep understanding of this ever-more complicated area’ would be ‘hugely beneficial’.

The Art Newspaper has suggested the new art forensic unit is Sotheby’s response to the circulation of fake works in the art market. One of several cases to hit the headlines in recent months was that of ‘Portrait of a Man’ believed to have been painted by Frans Hals and purchased by a US buyer in 2011 in a US$10 million (£8.24 million) private sale brokered by Sotheby’s. Following an investigation by Orion Analytical it was declared a fake and the sale was rescinded.

Orion Analytical is also conducting an investigation into a ‘Saint Jerome’ attributed to the ‘circle of Parmigianino’, which sold for US$800,000 (£653,777) at auction at Sotheby’s New York in January 2008.

The Art Newspaper hinted that the proliferation of fake works in the art market might be linked to the dwindling number of Old Master experts retained by auction houses. It believes their numbers have dropped while attention is focussed on their colleagues in the more profitable Impressionist and Modern and post-war and contemporary departments.

Shaken by a spate of forgery scandals, the art world is increasingly wary of questions surrounding the authenticity of high-profile works. Sotheby’s chief executive, Tad Smith, said that the acquisition of Orion Analytical would ‘help to make the art market a safer place’.


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