Major auction house creates new department to combat art forgeries

Auction house Sotheby’s has created its own forensic art analysis department in a bid to stamp out the increasing risk of forgeries in the art market.

The first auction house to do so, Sotheby's aims to remove the reputational threat that copies create across the multimillion-pound art market. Making use of US-based materials analysis firm Orion Analytical, the auction house has taken on Orion's founder, James Martin, as its director of scientific research.

The move comes following a major blow for Sotheby's earlier this year when it was forced to return £8.4 million to a US buyer for a painting that had been sold under the name of Dutch artist Frans Hals. However, when the painting was later sent to James Martin for analysis, modern materials were revealed to be contained within the painting, meaning that it could not possibly have been painted in the 17th century.

More than 1,800 investigations have been carried out by Mr Martin, for auction houses, private art collectors, the FBI and museums. He makes use of molecular analysis, microspectroscopy and elemental analysis, as well as a host of other techniques, and often manages to uncover a fake when the materials used are found to have not been created until after the death of the supposed artist.

As well as having to repay the buyer of the piece of art if a fake is discovered, forgeries can also cost auction houses dear in terms of reputation. It also casts doubt on whether other pieces of art being sold by the auction house are indeed genuine.

Art historian Bendor Grosvenor said that the move by Sotheby's was 'overdue' and would mean that art buyers across the globe would be able to make their purchases – often extending to millions of dollars – with greater confidence. This would also serve to "give Sotheby’s “a bit of a competitive edge for a while," he said.

Talking about Mr Martin's skills in weeding out forgeries, Mr Grosvenor told the Financial Times: "These forgers are so skilled that you have to have the connoisseur's eye. It is not just about using the right and wrong ingredients but it is about knowing how artists would have used them and the manner of their application. That is where someone like Jamie Martin has an edge.”

The auction house has confirmed that it will make use of Mr Martin's skills across both the paintings and sculpture sectors, as well as for antiquities including ancient Egyptian sculptures, contemporary works and fine wine.

Chief executive of the New York-listed auction house, Tad Smith, said he was hopeful that the creation of the new department across Sotheby’s New York and London bases, would “help to make the art market a safer place”.

Mr Martin confirmed to the publication that he was “looking forward to continuing my teaching and professional collaborations with museums and conservators, as part of my work at Sotheby’s."

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