Something was wrong with the Jackson Pollock. For one thing, 3-D images from a stereomicroscope revealed that the signature was traced with a needle—forged. And, working with a hyper-precise Raman microscope, a tool capable of analyzing sample areas as small as a thousandth of a millimeter across, Jamie Martin identified the presence of Red 170, a pigment that wasnt widely available until decades after Pollocks death. Yep. The painting was a fake.
When art historians, museum curators, or law enforcement officials suspect that a work of art isnt genuine, they call Orion Analytical, Martins one-man microniche materials analysis and consulting firm. Over the years, he has examined everything from Egyptian artifacts to rare bottles of wine, searching for the tiniest flaws.
Were analyzing samples so small theyre invisible to the naked eye, Martin says.
In his investigations, he relies on research, his vast knowledge of art history, and a collection of highly specialized tools—microscopes, cameras, spectrometers—to answer questions like: Did the forger paint over another painting? Are the materials consistent with the era? Were any elements added later? Is the signature real?
As it turns out, that fake Pollock was one of nearly 40 forgeries created by a Chinese artist in Queens, New York, and sold or consigned by Manhattans prestigious Knoedler Gallery between 1994 and 2008. Martin examined 16 of the paintings himself, discovering flaws like anachronistic materials and marks from an electric sander. The scam, totaling some $80 million, is the biggest in American history. Earlier this year, Martins detective work landed him in court as an expert witness in a $25 million case over a fake Mark Rothko. (A lawsuit involving the Pollock is ongoing.)
When Martin began his career as a conservation scientist in the early ’90s, he didnt exactly picture himself working cases with the FBI. Back then, he was mostly analyzing works of art so that curators could choose the right materials for repairs and restoration. But that keen eye for detail eventually made Martin into one of the best fakery spotters in the world. Today he consults with the Feds and has taught classes like Infrared Spectrometry for Trace Analysis at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Its my job to use technology and research to tell the story of a work of art, Martin says. As a scientist, I feel a responsibility to preserve art history so that future generations have an accurate, rich understanding of who these artists were and what they created.
But while Martin feels an obligation to help find the truth, thats not what he loves most about his job. He prefers projects like determining the exact materials that New Yorks American Museum of Natural History should use to repaint its massive blue whale or figuring out why the surface of a historic brownstone in New York has turned black and begun to flake off. “When I can help conservators preserve cultural property, thats a really good day for me,” he says.
Because Martin is always looking for connections between his data and the objects he examines—and because whatever hes working on could lead to a legal dispute—he prefers to work alone. Every sample, every test, every element passes through his hands, and his hands only. Well, with one exception. Once, he allowed his daughter, Elizabeth, to use an infrared microscope to test those paint samples from the famous blue whale for her high school science project. But then he redid the tests himself, just to be sure.
Every case is unique; sometimes Martin has to invent whole new methods to solve mysteries. One time, a painting was destroyed while in transit, despite the fact that it had been professionally packed in a crate and stored in the hold of an airplane. The only clue was an oddly shaped hole in the crate. Martin had a hunch about what made it thanks to a former job driving a forklift for an airfreight company. (He’s a man of many talents.) He made a scale model of the artwork and the crate, then tested how much force it would take to knock the painting loose. His experiments revealed that the screws used to attach the painting to the crate were too small—and not recommended by the manufacturer.
If they had spent 89 cents more on screws, a $3 million painting would not have been a total loss, he says.
Martin encounters sloppiness all the time. Even the craftiest fraudsters leave clues, he says. In another case, a forger was clever enough to buy the same kind of paint that would have been used by an artist in 1932. But Martin one-upped him: After analyzing the entire 12-square-foot surface, he found what he refers to as accidental material stuck in the paint. It was a single polypropylene fiber, a material that wasnt introduced until 1958.
Pro tip for con artists: If youre trying to fool Martin, wear cotton.
This article appears in the December issue. Subscribe now.