I was checking one of my Linkedin groups and saw an article about Leonardo DaVinci. Alas, it was about what seems to be our topic for the week – Authentication. It is a rather lengthy, but interesting article in The New Yorker. One of the main themes presented in detail in the article was the discussion about an authentication team member who is a forensic art expert and scours the painting for fingerprints left behind. This ability to treat the canvas as a crime scene allows him to “render objective what has historically been subjective.” This is one of the major drawbacks of authentication. Even with experts, even with methodical examination, even with scientific tests – the aggregate opinion formed is Subjective. So to be able to scientifically link a work, via a fingerprint trapped in the art, to a specific person is very exciting. It moves authentication from the realm of subjective to objective, at least for works of art. Objective measurements, like paint or paper analysis, have been used in the authentication process for some time, but to matching something that is so unique and tied to a single person – a fingerprint. That is ground-breaking stuff.
Biro, the forensic expert in Canada, first used fingerprints to authenticate a work of art with a J.M. W.Turner landscape painting in 1995. Then in year 2000 a splattered canvas in the style of Pollock was brought to him by a truck driver. Biro and the owner of the painting, Horton, fought the establishment, authentication based on connoisseurship, and proved via fingerprints and paint analysis that the painting Horton bought for $5 in a thrift store was indeed a Pollock and worth millions. People began to buck the old system and come to Biro for help in authenticating works of art by Turner, Picasso, Thomas Hart Benton, and a dozen other Pollock paintings. He helped attribute a painting, partly on fingerprints, to one of DaVinci’s assistants. Which reiterates the point that authentication is still a complex process combining both subjective and objective processes.
Through a very complex. proprietary process, Biro was able to take a smudged print on the DaVinci painting, and prove the work on vellum now entitled “La Bella Principessa,” was indeed a previously unknown DaVinci worth approximately $150 million. However, there is a twist. In writing the article, the Post author, was told to look deeper into Biro. He did. The trail started with business fraud, then lawsuits with judgments for art fraud, to a person named Ken Parker who went to Biro to authenticate a Pollock. Biro supposedly found a fingerprint, like the one on the truck driver’s Pollack, yet while awaiting to issue the report kept asking Parker for more money related to the job and a business venture. Parker had just won the New York lottery.
Parker and his wife became suspicious of Biro. They tracked their painting to a women who bought from an artist who painted it to look like a Pollack. “In March, 2007, the Parkers’ widening inquiry led them to a company called Global Fine Art Registry. One of the main services of the registry, which is based in Phoenix, is to provide art works with a tag, rather like a Vehicle Identification Number, and catalog them in a database, in order to create a record of their provenance. The founder of the company, Theresa Franks, although not well known in the art world, has cast herself as a crusader against fraud in a realm that she describes as the “last wild frontier.” Operating out of her home, she pursues her own investigations, hiring independent experts and posting reports on her Web site. (One of her recent campaigns was against a company named Park West Gallery, which, she alleged, was selling fake prints by Salvador Dali.” Which brings me to a second point I like in the article. A VIN number for art. But a name stood out to me. I knew the gallery,mentioned as one of Global Fine Art Registry’s campaigns against fraud, Park West Gallery rang a bell.
I had appraised some art prints with COAs from Park West that had been purchased on a cruise ship. Which leads back to Thursday’s blog post and tip that Certificates of Authenticity(COA) issued for items that don’t require one, a new print, or by a person who is selling the item are useless. I didn’t know when I started reading the article that it would, in a 6 degrees of separation sort of way, bring me back to my own post!
In conclusion, I would encourage you to read the New Yorker article, The Mark of a Masterpiece. David Grann painted a very interesting trail of what appears to be ground-breaking technology used to deceive and commit fraud. Ultimately, forensic science is a tool, just like a hammer, and in the wrong hands it can be used to deceive. And like the hammer, in the wrong hands, it can claw holes in a bridge instead of help build it.