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Meet the 'rock star' of exposing art forgeries

Jamie Martin lives in an era when the very definition of facts is in flux - and he's hellbent on finding the truth

(Above) Jamie Martin, director of Scientific Research at Sotheby's, uses black light, lab equipment, shortwave infrared cameras, X-rays and other tools to analyse paintings.

New York

JAMIE MARTIN has some advice for criminals: "Never wear synthetic fibers while making a forgery." They'll show up in the lab.

And everybody knows that Vermeer didn't wear polyester.

Mr Martin shared that wisdom while showing a guest around his fifth-floor laboratory-office at Sotheby's New York on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It's a large, windowless white room filled with technology, some of the equipment owned by only a handful of institutions worldwide.

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Just past the locked door, with its laser-radiation danger warning, cameras were aimed at the vibrant oils of a Flemish old master. Mr Martin described another painting in his office, seen only from the back, as "probably from the 16th century". (The owners had not given him permission to show it.) Mr Martin, one of those lucky men who still look boyish in their late 50s, knows some forgers are careless, like the man whose supposed Jackson Pollock was sold to the Knoedler Gallery in Manhattan with the signature "Jackson Pollok."

That was part of a major 2016 art-world scandal, which Mr Martin discussed on 60 Minutes.

Clever forgeries

But some forgers are clever. They are the ones who fear Mr Martin, who was called "the rock star of his field" with "no equal" in a recent Art New England article. After decades of consulting for the FBI, museums, auction houses and other clients, Mr Martin is now head of Sotheby's scientific research department. In its first year, 2017, his department examined works valued at more than $100 million, Darrell Rocha, a Sotheby's spokesman, said.

Museums may have this kind of setup, but until now major auction houses didn't. Sotheby's acquired Orion Analytical, Martin's Williamstown, Massachusetts, company, in December 2016 and now claims 80 percent of his time, half of which he spends in New York and half either at Sotheby's London or traveling, sometimes to examine artworks on site.

When a work comes to Mr Martin, it begins a multipart analysis with an appraisal in visible light. Then, when he shines a bright light on the work, he can detect the presence of any optical brightening agents. Those were introduced around 1950, so if the work is supposedly older, that's the end of that. With a black light, otherwise invisible cracks may be visible.

In this Flemish old master, Adriaen Isenbrandt's The Flight Into Egypt, one goes right through the Virgin Mary's neck. Under black light, certain areas look very dark; that's where the work has been restored.

With a shortwave infrared camera (the kind used in drones, Mr Martin points out), you may see the artist's underdrawing - the genius's equivalent of a paint-by-number pattern. The lab's second camera is less sensitive, he said, "but it sees through some things the other doesn't". The next step is an X-ray, done on-site by an outside firm.

There's a human factor too - in fact, a building full of veteran art specialists to consult. One told him that the Flight Into Egypt underdrawing looked very much like one in Isenbrandt's crucifixion triptych at a museum in Estonia. Mr Martin strives for objectivity. "I don't have any skin in the game," he said, adding that his contract forbids bonus pay. He compared himself to an umpire, trying to make the right call.

But he does love watching the game. Asked whether he was more excited over finding a fake or confirming something as the real thing, he spoke slowly and chose his words carefully. "I get more excited when in working with other specialists, we find physical evidence to support the attribution and the age."

Mr Martin, it turns out, does not declare authenticity. Although he has testified as an expert witness in a number of court cases, he will never be the guy who takes the stand and announces, "Yes, this is a Rembrandt!" or "This is a shoddy fake!" He answers just one question: Are there any contraindications to the claim?

For example? "We didn't find anything inconsistent with Leger working in 1913." His reference is to Dessin Pour 'Contraste de Formes No 2,' believed to have been done by Fernand Leger (born 1881) in his early 30s. It is part of a collection bequeathed to benefit the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Determining provenance

There, in his office, is a mosaic of its image on the screen of a seemingly standard laptop computer, where Mr Martin uses the periodic table of elements to determine composition. Aha, there's calcium. That makes sense; one of the dominant paint colours in that era was bone black. (Bone equals calcium.) The whites consistently show lead and barium, which is exactly what was used in paint formulations then. Any titanium white? No. Good, because it was used only from the 1920s on.

Against one wall is the Bruker M6 Jetstream, about the size and shape of a big flat-screen TV and its stand. It examined the Leger by macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF), making an astounding 1.2 million measurements overnight. Then the findings are confirmed with other analytical methods such as Raman or Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. The investigation goes deep, all the way to molecular analysis.

Growing up in Baltimore, Mr Martin loved science and art equally, so he decided to study medical illustration at Johns Hopkins University. On his way to apply, though, he stopped at a Baltimore museum, where he bumped into (literally, as in "Sorry, was that your foot?") a conservator. She offered him a backstage tour, after which Mr Martin changed his plans ("I never made it to Johns Hopkins").

Eventually he was a postgraduate fellow in paintings conservation at Cambridge University. But early interests stuck; his narration abounds in medical metaphor.

If Sotheby's were a hospital, his department would be "the ER or a clinic," he said. One analyses includes " like an MRI", and another is "like a CT scan".

"I like living within the four corners of what's right and what's wrong." he said, adding that he told people who work for him, "'If you ever lie to me, you're gone.'" NYTIMES