Forging Science: The Story Of How Famed Painting Authenticator Likely Duped The Art World
from the fingerprint-this dept
A couple years ago, on a whim, knowing nothing at all about the movie, I rented the documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?. It’s a really amazing documentary. Compelling, well-done and really entertaining. The reviewers loved it too. It tells the story of a truck driver woman, who bought a painting for $5 at a garage sale, and is convinced that it’s actually done by Jackson Pollock. The movie has numerous amusing scenes with famed art experts staring at the painting and dismissing it in the most… condescending of tones. Eventually, the “hero” of the film is a guy named Peter Paul Biro, who matches a fingerprint on the back of the painting to one he found in Pollock’s (still preserved) studio. The movie ends and you’re absolutely convinced that the painting is really by Pollock — even if the art world won’t recognize it. At the end of the film, the truck driver who bought the painting has turned down a $2 million and a $9 million offer for the painting, holding out for the $50 million she’s sure it’s worth. I highly recommend watching it (though, oddly, I can’t seem to find any video clips of it online — not even a trailer for the flick).
Remembering that, I was fascinated to see that The New Yorker recently did a long feature piece on Peter Paul Biro and dove in to read it. The first half of the article covers Biro’s rise to fame. How a few of these “fingerprinting” authentications had made him quite famous, with that documentary ratcheting up his fame level even higher. The key point that everyone keeps noting is that, rather than the traditional form of authentication — the condescending art experts in the documentary who are ripe for mocking and use what often feel like extremely subjective techniques — this involved science. After all, if the fingerprints matched, how can you question that?
But, then, the article takes a turn. There are a few cracks in the story, and someone who knows Biro well suggests that the reporter, David Grann, look a bit more deeply into Biro’s (and his family’s) history. It turns out that they were involved in several lawsuits years earlier involving selling what were later found to be forged artwork. Of course, painting forgeries are nothing new, but as Grann dug deeper and deeper he kept coming across evidence that Biro’s “authentications,” may have involved questionable practices — including planting faked fingerprints on some of the paintings he was supposed to be authenticating. It’s an amazing and gripping article — and totally calls into question pretty much all of Biro’s work. At the end of it, I was just as convinced that the truck driver’s “Pollock” painting is not by Pollock, as I was that it was by Pollock at the end of the documentary!
But I found most interesting of all was the reasons why so many people were convinced that Biro’s authentications were real. It wasn’t just the use of “science.” And it wasn’t just that people had this natural inclination to believe that so-called “art experts” don’t know what they’re talking about, but that Biro appears (and, for what it’s worth, Biro denies the allegations in the article) to have used what are effectively social engineering tricks to make this work. There’s a certain brilliance in realizing that rather than forging paintings, there may be money to be made in authenticating works by effectively forging fingerprints on top of other works — which then gives it the air of legitimacy-via-science. Honestly, the whole idea that someone would go in and forge fingerprints on top of a piece of art work just doesn’t seem in the realm of possibility, and so most people didn’t even consider it.
I had started reading the article last week (as mentioned, it’s pretty long), but ended up finishing it up now, because I was thinking some more about the recent story of those glass negatives that have been “authenticated” as being from Ansel Adams — which Ansel Adams’ estate is vehemently denying are Adams’ work. After reading The New Yorker piece, it’s difficult not to be increasingly skeptical of the claims of these new negatives, even with all of the “scientific” evidence that has been mentioned by the team involved in the authentication.