In the year since a hemorrhaging of senior staff created a vacuum in its top ranks and sparked something of an existential crisis, Sotheby’s has spent $85 million to install a fully built-up advisory firm within its environs, as if it were Goldman Sachs. It hired away the director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to ensure the swift consignment of the world’s best and most expensive Warhols. It gained a stronger foothold in the Asian markets when its largest shareholder became Taikang Life Insurance, the parent company of auction house China Guardian. It hired away a veteran market reporter from a leading trade paper to handle auction and fair analysis, exclusively for Sotheby’s. And this fall it snapped up Mei Moses Art Indices, an analytics mechanism that spouts out mountains of data comparing the strength of the art market to that of other asset classes.
So it’s been a rollicking time there at Sotheby’s, with the sum of the small gets and big poaches and Hail Mary passes creating a vertically integrated company, a little simulacrum of the entire art market under the guise of an auction house. So it makes sense that it might want its own scientific laboratory to protect against the threat of fakes. Why outsource that?
Which brings us to today’s announcement: Sotheby’s has acquired Orion Analytical, a firm run by James Martin, a leading scientist and art conservator who has investigated the provenance of more than 1,800 works in a long and storied career. Martin will head up the brand new Scientific Research Department at Sotheby’s.
The press release establishes Martin firmly in the Indiana Jones mold, zipping around the globe identifying masterpieces and saving them from the bad guys while taking out master forgers as he goes:
He has undertaken more than 1,800 investigations for clients on five continents, and taught at The Getty Conservation Institute, The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, and the FBI’s Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit. He also holds academic appointments at New York University and Williams College. James has conducted art fraud investigations for the FBI for twenty years, and played a central role in the most significant forgery investigations of recent times.
Tad Smith, Sotheby’s CEO, said that “Sotheby’s has had the pleasure of working with Jamie for the better part of the past two decades, and over time it became increasingly clear that rather than work on a one-off basis we could create something unique within Sotheby’s that would further distinguish us in the marketplace and at the same time help to make the art market a safer place.”
Now that it has a state-of-the-art laboratory that will allow for “technical imaging, magnified visual inspection, elemental analysis, and molecular analysis,” all in the name of scrutinizing works before they hit the auction block, Sotheby’s is closer to having under its auspices every widget and gear of the art market sausage grinder. Hell, there’s even a Sant Ambroeus in the York Avenue citadel now. Maybe Sotheby’s should acquire whatever Saville Row tailor makes that same suit everybody wears and call it a day.