The New Yorker’s Mark of a Masterpiece tells me its time to re-evaluate a couple opinions I expressed about that so-called Jackson Pollock I wrote about back in 2006. Thanks to a documentary called Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?, I wasted a fair bit of ink on why I thought the International Foundation for Art Research should take another look at a garish painting that didn’t look much like a Pollock. Forensic scientist Peter Paul Biro had produced fingerprinting identification and matched paint samples though, and that evidence seemed rather compelling. So I pushed aside a few pesky details, namely that it followed the basic rule of forgery: The less plausible the fake, the more involved the narrative and documentation becomes. This one reached absurd levels, with truck driver Teri Horton’s big thrift store find and Peter Paul Biro’s research even spinning its own documentary.
Now however, David Grann sheds considerable light on some of the forensic scientist’s more questionable authentication techniques. From the article:
[Theresa] Franks [of Global Fine Art Registry, a company crusading against fraud] became particularly interested in Biro's methods after Frankie Brown, an artist in California, told her that he had seen a photograph of the Teri Horton painting, in People, and wondered if it might be his own work. Franks hired as an expert Tom Hanley, the chief of police in Middlebury, Vermont, who had more than two decades of experience as a fingerprint examiner. Hanley told me that he approached Biro, who had previously stated about Horton's painting, “My work is (and has been) available for evaluation to qualified experts.” Yet Biro declined to share his evidence, saying that Horton had objected to the idea.
Hanley was thus forced to rely on bits of information that Biro had posted on his Web site, several years earlier. The online report contains a photograph of the partial fingerprint that Biro said he had found on the back of Horton's painting. In Hanley's judgment, the impression lacked the kind of detail—the clear ridges and furrows—that is necessary to make a proper comparison.
After Hanley revealed his findings to Franks, she raised questions on her Web site about the reliability of Biro's fingerprint methodology. Biro then inserted a clarification to his online report. It said:
For security reasons, several images in this report are watermarked in a way that is not apparent to the observer. The fingerprint images have also been reduced in resolution so as to render them unusable except for illustration.
I advise against evaluating the fingerprint images illustrated in this report as if they were the actual source material. Any attempt to do so is pointless.
Biro told me that such secrecy protected the privacy of his clients and prevented anyone from misusing the fingerprint. To Hanley, this was baffling: what forensic scientist avoids peer review and even admits to doctoring evidence in order to prevent others from evaluating it? “If what he found are truly fingerprints, why isn't he sharing?” Franks asked me. In any case, Hanley, unable to examine Biro's evidence firsthand, had reached a dead end.
Then Ken Parker [a man Biro also produced a controversial Pollock authentication for] told Hanley and Franks about his drama with Biro. Parker said that Hanley was welcome to examine his painting. For the first time, Hanley was able directly to observe Biro's fingerprint evidence. He noted several fingerprints on the back of the picture, including two on the wooden stretcher frame, which were black, as if they had been made with ink. Looking through a magnifying glass, Hanley focussed on the most legible fingerprint, which appeared to be covered with a clear finishing coat, like a varnish. Parker said that before giving the painting to Biro he hadn't noticed a fingerprint on it. “I don't know where it came from,” he said. He said that Biro had told him he had used some sort of “resin process” to make it more visible. Hanley had never seen a print developed in this fashion. Based on the clarity of the impression, Hanley thought that the fingerprint had to be relatively new—certainly not from half a century ago, when Pollock was alive.
Those are pretty damning words. I spoke with Peter Paul Biro on more than one occasion during the promotion of the movie, and while he didn’t offer a lot of insight on the movie itself he did go to great lengths to explain that his reputation was his livelihood. “This is not a risk I would take if I were not certain,” he told me. Foolishly, I believed him.