On this month’s podcast we discuss the role of science in fine art. Specifically, what can science tell us about a work of art’s origin and authenticity? Can science help us discover fakes and forgeries undetected by traditional connoisseur style observation? We are joined by the famous art scientist Jamie Martin to discuss these issues, recount famous forgery scandals, and delve into his techniques and practices.
Episode 2 Transcription:
Steve Schindler: Hi. I’m Steve Schindler.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I’m Katie Wilson-Milne.
Steve Schindler: Welcome to the Art Law podcast, a monthly podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And vice versa. The Art Law Podcast is sponsored by the Law firm of Schindler Cohen & Hochman LLP, a premier litigation and art law boutique in New York City.
On this episode of the podcast we will be discussing the role of science and fine art. Specifically what can science tell us about the work of arts origin and authenticity? Can science help us discover fakes and forgeries that would be undetected by more traditional connoisseur-style observation?
Steve Schindler: We’re here today with Jamie Martin, Senior Vice President and Director of Scientific Research at Sotheby’s auction house, a title that really doesn’t do Jamie justice. Jamie is an artist, art conservator and forensic scientist. In 2000, he founded a company called Orion Analytical that became the preeminent materials analysis and consulting firm, specializing in the scientific analysis of art and cultural property. Working at the intersection of art and science, Jamie has revealed multimillion dollar forgeries in the art market, taught at The Getty Conservation Institute and the FBI, and conducted more than 1800 scientific investigations for museums, galleries, insurance companies, and private collectors around the world.
Katie and I have both worked closely with Jamie and it is a genuine pleasure to welcome him to the podcast. Welcome to the podcast Jamie.
Jamie Martin: Hi!
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yes, thanks for being here Jamie. So what can science tell us about art?
Jamie Martin: The way I like to phrase it is, is that science helps art tell its own story. Science can reveal the structure of the work, its composition and its condition.
Steve Schindler: How Jamie would you say that science intersects with questions about authenticity and fraud?
Jamie Martin: Well, in about 2009, the College Art Association codified guidelines and standards for authentications and attributions.
Steve Schindler: What is the College Art Association?
Jamie Martin: I’m not a member, but my understanding is that it’s a national association of art historians principally in colleges but also working privately or working in museums as well.
Steve Schindler: Okay, so they came out with some guidelines?
Jamie Martin: They did and in codifying guidelines they identified three essential elements involved in the authentication attribution process. The first oldest most important and never to be replaced is stylistic connoisseurship, which is examination with learned eye of the scholar. The scholar is the person or the entity that attributes and actually authenticates work of art. The second essential element is the provenance of the work or the documented history from the time it left the artist studio to present day. And usually that’s fractured or incomplete in some way. The third essential element which has been part of these kinds of studies for at least a 100 years, but was codified in this document, is scientific or technical examination.
And the role of science and technical examination in authentication and attribution studies is twofold, one is to test the claimed attributes of the attribution of the work and also test the claimed attributes of the provenance. In other words to see if the physical substance of the work is consistent with its attribution and provenance, the other principle aim of science and technology is to provide investigative leads, so to better understand the object – essentially to let the object tell its story about where it was, when it was, what it was. And those leads can help art historians and researchers better place the object in time, in some cases in a particular artist studio.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So what is the analysis of the work actually look like in terms of what you’re doing, maybe walk us through a typical examination of a painting?
Jamie Martin: So generally speaking from start to finish, every exam would start with visual inspection of the work in bright white light, the same way that a connoisseur would examine the work. They want to see the composition, or the design. They want to see the color, the opacity, essentially the facture of the work, the way the work is constructed. They’ll then move the light to the side, which is called raking light, and that reveals information about the texture of the work. And often identifies the presence of restoration or alteration, because in an authentication study a scientist doesn’t want to inadvertently identify restoration as original, find a problem and reach a wrong conclusion. Scientist and conservators then use ultraviolet light which, when I was a teenager these were lights on the ceiling of my room that illuminated Led Zeppelin posters.
Steve Schindler: I had the same posters and the same lights – by the way.
Jamie Martin: Alright. So we use the same lights now to illuminate works of art and materials have inherent fluorescence which allows us to see the distribution of different materials and often the distribution of restoration and alteration. We then use infrared light. We can’t see infrared light as humans, but we can use cameras to detect it and record it and create an image. And with that we can often better see restoration, but more importantly we can see through the paint. We can see through some materials to see what lays beneath, so artist underdrawings. We can see inscriptions that have been obliterated or erased. And all of those are noninvasive techniques that basically tell us about the object as a whole.
We then take the object and we put the object under what’s called a stereo binocular microscope – a microscope that gives us a three dimensional color image of the work and magnifications up to about 90 times – and with this we can look at the fine detail of the work. We can begin to understand its structure and its condition. We create a mental inventory of the number of different materials. We account for the presence of restoration. And this process helps guide the subsequent analyses that we do. The best most reliable way to analyze the work from a statistical point of view is to take the work of art, put it in a blender, destroy it, mix it up into a powder, take a pinch and analyze it. We obviously can’t do that.
So we have to select visually representative areas of our work and conduct our analyses on that. We have a range of noninvasive techniques that we can use. Not taking a physical sample, actually not touching the work of art, we can identify the elemental composition, so the elements like sodium or lead or mercury, we can identify where they are in the work. In the case of Remington sculpture, that can help determine whether the work was cast before Remington died or if it was cast after the artist died. And if after, whether it was authorized or unauthorized. If it’s a work of art like a painting or a painting on paper or a drawing, we can map the elemental composition of the work. So we can look for elements that stand out. Given the attribution, let’s say an artist who’s painting in 1800, if we find concentrations of elements associated with original material that is part of the object and those elements only became part of paints after 1800, then that raises red flags about the work.
And then we can use other techniques to identify what those materials are. In variably however in most cases we need to take a sample and we need to analyze the sample so that we understand the full composition of the material to give you an idea of the kind of sample, the sample size that we need are typical sample sizes range from about 1/1000th of a millimeter to about 40/1000ths of a millimeter, which is about the width of a human hair.
Katie Wilson-Milne: How do you even collect a sample that small?
Jamie Martin: It’s good question. You collect it using the same microscope that you use to find the sample location, so using a microscope that’s analogous to a surgical microscope, same kind of microscope a neurosurgeon would use. And we actually use neurosurgeon tools. I use a scalpel. And I’ll use the scalpel to remove such a tiny piece of material, I can only see it with a microscope, but that one little tiny microscopic specimen can be used for one or two or five or ten separate analyses depending on what the questions are.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Jamie I think one question we shouldn’t let go by for too long is how are you qualified to do this work, right. I mean the way you described the analysis of the art, presupposes a certain amount of knowledge when you look at the piece under the light initially and you’re sort of doing the visual analysis. How do you know how to do that?
Jamie Martin: Well, conservation scientists have different backgrounds, some are PhDs who have advanced degrees in chemistry or engineering. Others come from the conservation ranks. And that’s the route I took. My background is a little different. It’s a bit unique in the field, when I was 13 my father gave me a microscope, a chemistry set and sent me to art school. And so from a very young age I was taught how to mix different powdered pigments together to make paint. And how to stretch canvases much the same way it was done in old master days in workshops. And at the same time I was blowing little things up in my bedroom with my chemistry set and beginning to explore the world with a microscope which sits on the desk I have now.
After high school I attended a traditional art school in Baltimore. And we were taught to emulate the techniques of the old masters and one thing I became very proficient at doing was doing copies in museums where I could create works in some cases that were indistinguishable from the originals. I did a copy of William Merritt Chase of the Baltimore Museum of Art. And as I was walking out with it one day, the director of the museum asked me if I was taking it back to storage. And I sort of laughed.
Steve Schindler: You were in training either to be a conservation professional or a forger –
Jamie Martin: Well that – that’s very interesting when I applied to the conservation graduate programs which included Winterthur, the admissions committee raised questions and flagged me, because my art portfolio was so strong and my ability to copy was so good. They were concerned if they trained me as a conservator and a scientist that I would be a master forger. It turns out and I didn’t know at that time, I’m a bit of a master detective at catching forgers. So I got a graduate degree in art conservation at the University of Delaware, then I went on to postgraduate work at University of Cambridge.
Then I set about creating the first two fee-for-service conservation analytical labs in the United States, one in a museum and one privately and they were both setup to provide basic conservation science services to conservators and museums that didn’t have scientists. So what equips me to take samples and what equips me to interpret the data and reach reliable, accurate conclusions is having taken about 15,000 samples and having conducted about 13,000 FTI or analyses. It’s just a lot of experience, the good luck, good fortune of working with really good scientists over the years who were able to teach me the tools of the trade.
And then being surrounded by excellent people in museums and the conservation field and interestingly also in the art law field.
Steve Schindler: So let’s talk about your detective skills, because one of the ways that we met was in connection with a case involving fakes and forgeries. How prevalent are fakes and forgeries in your view in the art market?
Jamie Martin: Well, we really don’t know. We read in newspapers and magazines from time to time that it’s been estimated that 50% of works are fake or 80% of works are fake, but if you dig a bit deeper into those articles it’s often someone trying to make the claim to attract business and create a fear that everything is sold in the market place is potentially a fake.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah, I feel like I’ve read articles, “half the works on every museum all are fake, you just don’t know it.”
Jamie Martin: Yeah, we just don’t know, there’s been no study done. There’s no data to look to. What we know publically is probably a small fraction of the art forgery case isn’t fakes that are in circulation or from cases like the Beltracchi case or the Knoedler case or the Rudy Kurniawan case that dealt with wine, there are lot of investigations being done behind the scenes by law enforcement that we’ll probably never know about. And a lot of investigations I did were done under confidentiality agreements that I can’t discuss. Someday I hope the FBI will get on to it, burst the forgery ring and make people whole. I would say that forgeries can be a significant problem, depending on what is being forged or faked and where it’s being sold.
So generally a ring of forgers has a target market in sight. They more or less know the market that they want to create the works for and sell the works for. There is some evidence to suggest that forgeries pertaining to a particular artist spike up after a big exhibition on the artist or after publication of the catalogue raisonné, because there’s a lot of technical information and a lot of visual information that a forger can take and create a pastiche – using some of the materials that are disclosed in the publication. It’s one of the reasons why scientists like I, scientist in museums often don’t disclose everything we find, but withhold some important information, so that we don’t give away all the secrets of detection or we don’t disclose publically all of the stupid mistakes that forgers are making. We like them to continue to make those stupid mistakes.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So can you tell our audience briefly about the Beltracchi case?
Jamie Martin: Yeah, so Wolfgang Beltracchi and his wife devised a really sinister scheme to create a large group of fake works that reportedly created in Europe, say between 1910 and 1930. And they would use publications that sided exhibitions of works by known artist that didn’t give illustrations, didn’t give sizes. They gave the artist name, the date, and the title of the work. And that was the basis of the provenance for the work. They could create a work, point back to that publication and say, “Oh, here’s the work.” What was particularly clever was that they created the false provenance of the so-called “Jagers collection” and Jagers happened to be Beltracchi’s wife Helene’s maiden name. And what Beltracchi did was to create framed posters of his fakes, he put them in a room. He had period furniture.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I love this part.
Jamie Martin: And his wife dressed up as her grandmother and posed with the works. Beltracchi used an old box style camera that would make the image a little blurry. He printed the photographs on deckled paper, which would have been period, photocopied them. And then you can imagine when Helene would take the painting and present the perspective owner with the photograph of the painting photographed with her grandmother, people would say, “Oh my God, the family resemblance! You look so much like your grandmother.” And as this often the case with fakes and forgeries it doesn’t take much to nudge someone to the point of accepting what is false as true. They didn’t look deeper. That was enough for them to believe the story that Beltracchi assembled.
Steve Schindler: It always seems in these cases that the purchasers and fakes so much want to believe. Whether it’s in the Rudy Kurniawan case that you just eluded to before – passionate collectors of wine want to believe that they’re getting these rare vintages so much that they overlook obvious clues. In other cases, they buy works where the signatures are misspelled, as we’ll get to, so part of it just seems to be tremendous excitement and passion on the part of the purchasers.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Well and there’s no incentive for anyone in that chain to want something to be fake, right? The buyer wants it to be worth what they paid for it. They want it to be by the artists they think it’s from. So who in that chain wants to disrupt that?
Jamie Martin: Well, in a very clever way of introducing the fakes is to introduce the fakes that art fairs or dealers where there’s a real time pressure to purchase. So for example in an art fair, a fake might be exhibited, and you might get two people in the span of two or three days looking at the work, basically competing for who’s going to purchase the work. There really isn’t the time to step back to examine the claimed attributes, so the work is attributed to artist X in year Y. I think I’d like to step back, look at some books published on the artist perhaps the catalogue raisonné and see if this work really fits.
And then I want to look at the provenance. And I want to find out if there was actually a Jagers collection. And if not, those are going to raise red flags for me.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So how did he get caught?
Jamie Martin: Beltracchi got caught, because the Doerner Institute in Munich, Germany was given a painting by the police to examine and they found two things working with an art historian who probably was the first person to break the case. He noted that the fake labels that were applied to the back of many of the works were of a gallery that didn’t exist at the time the works were purportedly dated. So the gallery label dates were mismatched. The Doerner Institute then examined the painting and they found that the painting contained historically inaccurate materials. So pigments that weren’t introduced and used at paints at the age of that particular work of art. And that’s enough to conclude that the work couldn’t have been – could not have been constructed at that time, and that raised huge flags.
At that point I understand that police began to assemble lists of works that were likely Beltracchi fakes. I became involved through looking at a number of works for private collectors and auction houses and was commissioned actually by 60 Minutes to examine a fake Beltracchi work in the style of Ernst, so I could explain to Bob Simon how Beltracchi created the work, but more importantly how Beltracchi got caught. Now Beltracchi was very careful about his materials. He would purchase old canvases that would have been used in the same period, so if you tried to date the canvas, it would be appropriate. And he tried to select paints that contained pigments that would be used at that time.
So he would go to the store and he would look for Winsor and Newton paint and he would turn it around and look at the label. And it would say Zinc White. And that was the limit of Beltracchi’s knowledge of paint manufacturers. Now because paint manufacturer from time to time hired me to reverse engineer their competitors’ products to tell them what they were using to make paint, I was aware that manufactures often topped off or added materials to paints. And in this case the manufacturer added a little bit of a very opaque pigment called Titanium White to the Zinc White. And they used modern synthetic organic pigment called Phthalocyanine Blue that they used to top off or make the blue paint that Beltracchi used more intense.
And those two materials were very easy to detect. And they proved that that those works were not authentic. Beltracchi himself I think was quoted saying, “Ah yeah, the Titanium White.”
Katie Wilson-Milne: We should probably interject, Steve, to explain the legal background that it’s obviously not illegal to copy something that’s in the public domain, if you say it’s a copy and you tell people that you painted it and it’s not by the original artist. What is illegal is fraud and pretending that a work authored by you is by another person and leading a buyer, inducing a buyer to buy that work based on that fact.
Jamie Martin: Correct.
Steve Schindler: And so one question, Jamie, is – you mentioned before that you, one of the things you search for are these anomalies and you’re able to determine whether a work could have been created at the time that it was purported to be created, but do you actually authenticate works?
Jamie Martin: No, rarely will scientific or technical examination unilaterally attribute or authenticate a work. And —
Steve Schindler: Why is that?
Jamie Martin: Well, because there isn’t a chemical or material fingerprint that would allow you to individualize a work to one and only one artist at a particular time.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So science can’t tell you something is authentic, but it can tell you something is fake?
Jamie Martin: It can tell you that something is fake. From time to time, you can form a conclusive, reliable, durable opinion that a work is fake based on science. It can also buttress an attribution more provenance, but it will never substitute for the absence of or a defect in provenance or stylistic connoisseurship.
Steve Schindler: Do you think in the area of stylistic connoisseurship which, is often criticized as being sometimes objective, insular, elitist, whatever you will – whether there is a place for science or an opportunity for science to replace the work of the connoisseur and I’m thinking particularly about advances in artificial intelligence the type of technology that makes an Apple iPhone work, the facial recognition. Do you sense that there is a place for that kind of technology in making attributions or authentications?
Jamie Martin: For probably about 10 years there’s been an emphasis in the computer science and physics disciplines to use image processing, computer analysis and things like fractal analysis, sparse coding analysis to essentially replace what – in some cases is viewed as the subjective eye of the kind of connoisseur – with the more “objective eye” of the computer looking at a photograph. There’s been some interesting and promising research done which I believe can enhance the work of authenticating or dating works, that is, clearly showing that something is inconsistent with the work of an artist.
Or in the case of Dürer drawings – comparing Dürer drawings to see how closely the strokes and the pressure applied to the implement and the basic composition is. However I haven’t seen any technology at this point that is able to accurately attribute works absent the human input of a scholar, of a conservator, of a scientist. I think it’ll probably happen in my life time. It’ll hopefully happen before I retire.
Katie Wilson-Milne: You describe a very complimentary process, but there has been some suggestion that there’s a tension between a traditional connoisseur – a PhD in art history, works at a museum – and scientific analysis that, I don’t know, there’s a perceived fear that science is replacing that scholarly expertise. Is that something you come in contact with or you also perceive?
Jamie Martin: Well, so there are a universe of conversations probably that are going on and they’re informed by different experiences and backgrounds and opportunities. I haven’t experienced that tension myself, before or since coming the Sotheby’s, but I come from an old school conservation science background where I’m one of three players. I view it as a three legged stool. And that first most important leg of this stool is the curator, is the catalogue raisonné author, is the independent expert. The second leg is the provenance leg, and I’m the third leg. My job is there just to steady the stool.
Steve Schindler: You’re telling yourself short Jamie but –
Katie Wilson-Milne: You’re creating a stool, but yes we take your points.
Steve Schindler: Yeah, one of the things that also dawns on me because we – we have experienced the problem in what we do of authenticators being reluctant now to authenticate work for reasons that we’re all well aware of: they get sued. They get sued by people who view themselves as possessing authentic works and they disagree with authenticators’ opinions.
Katie Wilson-Milne: What would be the basis for a lawsuit on those grounds?
Steve Schindler: Well, we’ve seen a lot of different theories, most of which had been rejected. It could be a theory of negligence, there have been reasons as wild as antitrust theories that have been set out. And the interesting thing is most of the lawsuits against authenticators end up either being settled or dismissed favorably towards the authenticators, but they have to spend an awful lot of money defending themselves, which is why they – in many cases, foundations and authenticating boards have stopped authenticating, and experts who are not paid a great deal of money typically to give opinions and find themselves tremendously at risk and we’ve been working in the art law community trying to remedy that legislatively at least in New York, but it does dawn on me that machines can’t get sued probably, not yet.
And so if there was a room for science to provide a clear or more objective authentication, it might alleviate some of the burdens on the whole process, I don’t know if you have any reactions to that.
Jamie Martin: I do I guess, I think the Knoedler case was probably a textbook case of where an expert in good faith working first for the Knoedler gallery and its director in providing reliable, accurate opinions on the attribution of authenticity of works and then subsequently working for a number of people who purchased works from the gallery – again in good faith providing accurate, reliable durable data and conclusions got caught up not in a lawsuit but in a flurry of subpoenas.
Katie Wilson-Milne: This expert is you, Jamie.
Jamie Martin: This expert is me. And I had never heard of a third-party expert having to retain legal council to produce documents and to represent the expert in court to answer allegations of obstruction of proper discovery and handling of evidence before.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So even the scientist can get caught up in these legal issues.
Jamie Martin: And it had a chilling effect during the Knoedler case. Before Knoedler, I could pick up the phone and call someone of the National Gallery and ask if I could come in and look through the research files on a particular case. Once the subpoenas went out and Knoedler, which included the director of the National Gallery – I would call the National Gallery and I was told by my colleagues, “We’ve been instructed by the legal counsel not to answer the phone when you call.” Now since Knoedler, that’s gotten better but the chilling effect in Knoedler was that you could be caught up in this and your life could be turned inside out. And other scientists who you know could say horrible things about you that had no basis in fact. And that was just the way the system worked.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Let’s talk about the famous Knoedler case which, you were involved in it, we were also peripherally.
Steve Schindler: Full disclosure – I guess at this point, since Jamie brought it up. We were representing Jamie and that’s how we were – fortunate enough to meet him and to be sitting here with him today.
Katie Wilson-Milne: There were many, many lawyers involved in the Knoedler case. All right, so the Knoedler Gallery was the oldest and one of the most respected art galleries in New York City and the United States. It had been a business for 165 years in a beautiful town house on the Upper East Side. And in 2011, at the end of 2011, it abruptly shut down declaring bankruptcy. In the background of this declaration of bankruptcy in going out of business was a brewing scandal over the sale of about 40 works of art that Knoedler sold and had alleged work created by who’s who of modern masters: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, William De Kooning, and others. There was one other dealer, Julian Weissman, who had sold 23 similar works of art. But we’ll focus on the Knoedler aspect of this.
These works were said to have brought in up to $80 million in profits for the dealers and following the galleries, closing this started to come out. There were rapid succession of lawsuits that were filed by collectors, alleging that these works were fake. And not to give away the end of the story they were fake. The provenance of these works had been sketchy. The works had all been brought to Knoedler by a Long Island art dealer, her name was Glafira Rosales who claimed to have obtained these works – never before seen on the market – from the children of a European Jewish collector, who wanted to remain anonymous for a variety of tantalizing reasons which people can look up in the newspaper.
This collector had supposedly bought these works through a dealer and friend of these artist directly from the artist studios in the ‘60s – the ‘50s and the ‘60s. So that’s why the works had never been seen on the market before. The story changed slightly over time and no documentation was ever provided by Rosales substantially in these origins, but that was the story that gallery retold to the buyers of these pieces and then later when they were brought in to these lawsuits. So Knoedler and its President, a woman named Ann Freedman did maintain that the works were genuine through the beginning of many of these lawsuits, notwithstanding the fact that Jamie demonstrated that many of them, conclusively were not genuine.
But in August 2013 in a parallel criminal investigation at the U.S. attorney’s office was involved in, Rosales was indicted and the FBI raided a house in Queens, where a very talented Chinese immigrant artist had been creating all these works. He had been creating these De Kooning’s and Motherwell’s and Rothko’s and the evidence was right there.
Steve Schindler: He had an amazing repertoire.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah it was incredible and it – and when law enforcement got at the house the doors were open, someone told me that or I read somewhere that a cereal bowl was half full and this artist had just fled. Nothing had been really taken or disturbed, so it was pretty conclusive, after this Knoedler and Ann Freedman changed their story. They admitted the works were fake. And then they argued that they had also been defrauded, that they had no way of knowing that the words would have been fake. So there were series of civil litigations, most of them have settled, no criminal charges were ever brought against the gallery or Ann Freedman. Glafira Rosales was indicted. She pled guilty.
Steve Schindler: She pled guilty and was given a very lenient sentence, which was house arrest, I believe, and some restitution.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah and the Chinese artist is no longer in the United States and that’s all we know. So Jamie tell us how you were involved in the Knoedler case?
Jamie Martin: Well, I was first hired by Ann Freedman and Knoedler Gallery to look at two purported Robert Motherwell paintings. And what became clear early on is that the works were created over old paintings, part of which had been removed with an electric orbital sander which was not a practice that Motherwell used. So that was one clue. Another clue was that the works had a series of white grounds that were materials that Motherwell was not using in the 1950s. One painting was signed and dated ‘53, the other was dated ‘56 is I recall. So I was finding materials that Motherwell wasn’t using till late ‘60s and I was finding pigments that weren’t introduced in paints until the ‘70s.
So that work concluded and some years later I was asked to examine Jackson Pollock painting that was purchased for around $17 million.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Also by the gallery or as –
Jamie Martin: Yeah, it was sold by the gallery as a work by Jackson Pollock and within just a few days I was finding acrylic paint and I was finding pigments that weren’t being used and artist paints until the 1980s and 1990s. I issued a report, the attorney gave it to Knoedler, and Knoedler closed the next day.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And so you were hired by a collector, a buyer to do that analysis?
Jamie Martin: Yeah. I then became involved in a series of other works including a purported Mark Rothko painting and that painting was a fake based on a number of features, the principle one being that the Chinese forger used a white ground underneath the paint. Mark Rothko never used white grounds in the 1950s.
Katie Wilson-Milne: What are white grounds?
Jamie Martin: A ground would be like a primer, it would be like a base coat that was applied to the canvas. In the 1950s Rothko was using a transparent colored ground and in this case it was an opaque white ground and it was a white ground that you could see at the edges, if you’re new to look for it. So that was a tip off on that work and they were whole selection of other works that I examined. For collectors, also for the U.S. attorney’s office and FBI, and to put it in a nutshell, what I was finding in this group of more than 20 works was a pattern of reuse of old paintings to make new paintings, so that the backs of the paintings looked appropriately old.
Katie Wilson-Milne: This is a common technique right? Beltracchi was doing this too.
Jamie Martin: Very common technique. Take something that’s old and recycle it and on the front paint something that’s new and make it look old. So that was another thing I was finding – that material was being applied to the front of the works to make it look artificially old. I was also finding co-occurrence of the same material. So many of these works painted by more than five artists over a period that spanned about three decades from the late ‘40s to the early ‘60s contained the same white grounds. I mean, the same white paints.
Katie Wilson-Milne: By different artists.
Steve Schindler: So this was a case where you were fortunate to be able to have tested a number of works by the same forger and even though each work in itself had anomalies that led you to conclude that they were fakes, when you looked at them collectively and it was overwhelming?
Jamie Martin: Exactly, so it was pointing to a common source for all of the paintings and that work continued. I was asked to examine the materials that were ceased from the Chinese forger’s garage which was an interesting process to go through for about six months.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So you were working with the FBI for then.
Jamie Martin: I was. I was working for the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office on the case as well. So I was able to look at the evidence that they ceased. I was able to examine practice paintings that the forger had created to try to achieve something that look convincing.
Katie Wilson-Milne: You described several anomalies, what was the real smoking gun for you in the Knoedler case?
Jamie Martin: Well, it was a different smoking gun for different works, I mean we – we knew for example that Jackson Pollock died in 1956, so when I’m finding polymers and when I’m finding pigments that were first discovered and patented and first used in paints decades after his death, the only explanation would be time travel – which I’m not a big fan of, so these were obviously fraudulent works. There were also features that contradicted the provenance. One thing that was mentioned in the provenance was that the works were collected over a period of a few years. And they were stored for decades and they were stored in a “hermetically sealed room,” which implies a room that had stable conditions – clean, archival – and many of the works showed paint transfers. They showed accumulation of debris and grime, which was just inconsistent with the story.
And that’s one of the features we look at. We not only look at the composition of the work that we’re studying, but we look at the provenance. We look at the story to see if we see evidence of that or evidence that speaks against it.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Am I remembering correctly that you found a fleece fiber in one of the paintings?
Jamie Martin: Oh, that was a different painting.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Oh okay, I love that.
Steve Schindler: That was a different case, but that’s also one of my favorite stories. Why don’t you share that with us?
Jamie Martin: This is a work that was signed and it was dated 1932 and the work was fairly large. As I recall, it was about 24” by 36” or 32” by 48” and as usual, I went through all the first steps with the work: technical imaging, stereo microscope exam. I made an inventory of all the materials used to create the work, from the canvas to the primer to all the different paints in the pallet. I analyzed all these materials, and I found that the binders and the pigments were consistent with paints that could have been used in 1932. And that’s the point at which a lot of scientists or labs would stop and they would write a report.
Katie Wilson-Milne: It looks good.
Jamie Martin: It looks fine, we find nothing to speak against it. That wasn’t my style, that wasn’t my practice, in part, because it’s informed by a forensic approach. So at that point whenever I engaged in a study and I find a result like that I start over. And I look at every square millimeter of the painting under the stereo microscope and I look for what’s called adventitious material, material that doesn’t belong there. Something that wasn’t part of the paint, something that the artist didn’t intend to include in the painting and I got – I started the bottom and by the time I got to the top two thirds of the painting, I found a fiber in the paint. And I knew it dried in the paint because two ends stuck out and the center was deeply embedded in dried paint.
And I took a very small sample of that fiber and analyzed it and I found polypropylene. Polypropylene fiber was first discovered and introduced in 1958. So on the basis of finding one fiber I was able to conclude that there was no way that that work was painted in 1932. I had to spread out, I had to be sure that all the paint was integral across the surface. Fast forward to 2015, there’s a book published in Paris called The Forger. And it’s a story of a young man who meets a master forger who teaches the young man all the tricks of the trade and the last trick of the trade is: when you’re creating a fake you should always wear a cotton or linen smock, because if one synthetic fiber falls from your clothing and becomes embedded in the painting a good scientist will find it and declare the work a fake.
That’s been part of a lecture I’ve given that was on the Columbia Art Law School website for eight years. And I suspect the person writing the book has internet connection.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah, I do just want to say before we get off Knoedler that it would be hard to overestimate how significant this scandal was for the art world. I mean the art world is a very secretive place deals happen privately, there was not a lot of paperwork and the fact that this scandal was going on and being covered up so well for – well over a decade and that 10s of millions of dollars were being made off the sale of these fake works was really disturbing and even art world people who certainly don’t follow legal claims and cases know about this case, because of the amount of money and the number of forgeries, but also because of the significance of the Knoedler gallery to New York, it really pioneered the art gallery world and it had been at the forefront of the art gallery world in the United States for really long time.
So if a buyer went to Knoedler they felt like, “well, if there’s anywhere I can go and I can trust what they’re going to tell me, it’s the Knoedler gallery.” And that really upended people sense of safety I think in the art market.
Steve Schindler: Right, and that was also reinforced by the judge who was hearing these cases in one of his decisions, because the Knoedler gallery and Ann Freedman, one of their defenses was well these sophisticated buyers should have known better, should have done their own due diligence and one of the things that judge said was, “but they were buying these works from Knoedler. They were buying them from one of the most respected galleries in New York.”
Katie Wilson-Milne: Which is the due diligence.
Steve Schindler: Right. Well actually, and one of the things – as long as we were talking about Knoedler still – that always interested me was how Ann Freedman used the fear of authenticators to speak out in her favor and we had represented a couple of these individuals who invariably recalled over to a gallery with a crowd of people shown a fake work and who looked at it and either didn’t say anything or said, “oh that’s nice” or something along those lines. And then afterwards she claimed that they had authenticated these works. And the way that they had authenticated them was to not shout out in a crowded room, “I think this is a fake!”
Katie Wilson-Milne: They stood in front of the work.
Steve Schindler: And they didn’t say anything. So – and of course they would never do that, they were not asked to do that, but even in the most ideal conditions most of these types of experts would have been afraid to speak out like that for fear of being sued and dragged further into this kind of case in the way that Jamie mentioned that he was.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And another significant aspect of Knoedler, and one of the reasons we are so thrilled to be talking to you, Jamie, is that it was one of the first times I think for a lot of people that they understood how science could interact with claims of fakes and forgeries and it was in such a public way that I think the scientific analysis of art hadn’t been widely discussed or understood before. I don’t know if you could talk a little bit about how important scientific analysis was to the outcome of the Knoedler scandal in general but also if you’ve seen the importance of scientific analysis or people’s perceived – how they perceive the importance of scientific analysis increase after Knoedler?
Jamie Martin: Well, I think what you have seen after Knoedler is an increase in the number of investor backed art analysis labs who are offering services to art investors and to some degree of art collectors. So, it was clear from Knoedler, because Knoedler was so widely publicized and covered over such a long period of time. And that the science really did factor quite importantly in the determinations that people recognized that science can be a very effective and necessary tool to assess those claimed attributes.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I will just say that, I perceive the scientific analysis of Knoedler being one of the most important aspects of the proof that was used in those cases and that without the science there were such competing opinions from so called connoisseurs that it was difficult for a non-expert audience like the judge or if there had been a jury to make sense of those kinds of claims, but when there’s the scientific report it sort of – it changed the game in the case.
Jamie Martin: Yeah, I testified in the De Sole case in January 2016, and what I heard after the trial was that the jury really did rely on the scientific information – the presentation of the findings in such a straight forward, visually accessible way – allowed them to understand the weight of the scientific evidence against the works, much in the same way that the testimony about the financial analysis and accounting did to.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right. The De Sole case, just for our audience, was one of the biggest Knoedler cases that went to trial and then ultimately settled.
Steve Schindler: So, Jamie, if we were assembling the all-time Hall of Fame of forgers, who do you think would be on the top of the list? Who is the best all-time forger in whatever categories you want to rate them?
Jamie Martin: Let’s say, so this would be modern times, this would be since Van Meegeren because fabulous forgeries were going on in Greek and Roman time and every time since. And Thomas Hoving talks a lot about that in his book. Van Meegeren was an incredible forger who exploited what he knew conservation scientists could and could not do. He knew that we could identify pigments. He knew that we had trouble identifying the binder, the liquid or glue that you mix with pigments to make paint. So he was very careful in his selection of pigments. In order to make his paintings dry quickly he threw in a synthetic polymer called Bakelite, which, after he created the work, he would put it an oven and heat it for some hours or days and it would be rock hard, as if the paint had aged naturally over three or 400 years.
He was later found out. He was accused of collaborating with the Nazis, and the court instructed him that if he really was a master forger, he should paint a fake Vermeer in the court room.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So he was forging Vermeers?
Jamie Martin: He was forging Vermeers, and he sold a work to Goebbels, and he was in a lot of hot water over that.
Steve Schindler: Wasn’t that also one of his defenses and the collaboration allegation, that, “Well I wasn’t collaborating, I sold him a fake, I sold the Nazis fake art, not real art.”
Jamie Martin: Yeah. It was worth a try, it was a little flimsy. The thing is is that forgers have access to the same technical literature that I do. So conservation scientists like us, we publish the results of our findings, of analyses of documented artists, and if a forger wants to go and read our findings and try to replicate the same materials, theoretically they can do that. And there is a lot of evidence that forgers do look at technical literature. The best forgers I’ve seen – well, the worst forger I’ve seen, is a man named William Toy and he was creating fake paintings in Louisiana. His downfall was his love of cats.
Katie Wilson-Milne: That’s a classic downfall!
Jamie Martin: He had 20 or 30 cats in his home, and I did the project for the FBI, and they gave me memory sticks from cameras that showed cats all over his house, including cats on the table where he made his fakes. And in every one of the fake works I examined for the FBI I found cat hair embedded. So he was not a careful forger, but the forgers –
Steve Schindler: There were lot of lessons in that story.
Jamie Martin: Yes.
Steve Schindler: Some involved cats.
Jamie Martin: Yeah, don’t paint around cats and don’t wear polar flees when you’re creating an old master. The better forgers, the forgers that really had the painting skill, the kind of skill that I learned when I was painting, would have to be Beltracchi and then one other forger who’s name I refuse to speak publically, because he is absolutely unrepentant about his work. But he’s probably the most technically gifted painter-forger I’ve ever seen.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And never caught.
Jamie Martin: No, caught.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Well, he was caught but not punished.
Jamie Martin: I caught him many times, but he was never indicted and he was never brought to account.
Katie Wilson-Milne: We’ll post links to some of these references.
Steve Schindler: We’ve also seen him bragging about his accomplishments and it’s frustrating.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah he speaks often in public in New York about his great skills.
Steve Schindler: We could do this probably for another hour, but we know you have places to go and every good thing has to come to an end, but thank you so much for joining us on our podcast.
Jamie Martin: You’re welcome, it’s always a pleasure.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Until next time I’m Katie Wilson Milne.
Steve Schindler: And I’m Steve Schindler bringing you the Art Law Podcast. A podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And vice versa.
Produced by Jackie Santos