Peter Paul Biro
Fine Art Conservation & Forensic Studies in Art
"These blog entries are meant to be informative and helpful to my clients and potential clients by providing samples of some of my past projects. Some draw on various issues and events to further underline the importance of technical examinations."
Forensics in the authentication of works of art
Old ideas tend to persist long after new evidence dictates otherwise. Forensics has done more to change conventional wisdom perhaps than any other endeavor. One definition of the word ‘forensic’ is the use of science and technology to investigate and establish facts.
Problems surrounding the correct attribution of a work of art have a very long history and this situation persists to this day. Misattributions continue to proliferate, as do forgeries and the scandals that follow them. We often see this as the subject of sensationalized articles and news items. The majority of works of art today are still judged on subjective visual examination alone – frequently on nothing more than an opinion based on photographs .
The scientific examination of paintings had a slow start in the early 19th century. “In 1800 a London doctor, John Haslam, carried out the first recorded analysis on samples from mid-fourteenth century wall paintings discovered in St Stephen's Chapel, Westminster. His work was examined and compared with that of Sir Humphry Davy, who in 1814 analysed pigment samples from excavations in Rome and Pompeii.”(1.)
It was only in the 20th century that we saw the beginnings of what today is the mainstream approach to pigment and technical analyses of paintings employing a wide range of ever-improving and evolving scientific instruments. At the beginning of the 21st century we are seeing the miniaturization of hitherto bulky and often room filling instruments. With such miniaturization the analytical instrument can literally be taken to the object as opposed to having to remove material from the artwork to be prepared and placed in an instrument’s specimen chamber.
Technical and scientific analyses of the materials that make up an artwork is now generally accepted and required in the authentication process. The history of paint-making is fairly well documented and is constantly expanding. The introduction of myriad new synthetics during the 20th century literally fuelled the works of many modern artists. “Siqueiros was passionately committed to technical innovation. He believed that revolutionary art called for revolutionary techniques and materials.”(2.) Alkyds, acrylics and other plastic based media saw their beginnings in the early part of the last century and new paint formulations continue to be introduced to this day.
Forensics has also seen a similar if not parallel evolution. The techniques and methods employed by forensic practitioners that often lead to crime-solving have crossed over to the art authentication process. Fingerprints left in paint are often seen on paintings and artists like Leonardo, Raphael and Turner intentionally used the ridges and furrows on their fingers for artistic purposes. And, we also find such marks left behind as a matter of handling or accidental touching of the art object.
Fingerprints, as a means of identifying an individual has been in generally accepted practice since the beginning of the last century. At its outset there were no databases available, but over a century huge collections were amassed by various organizations such as INTERPOL. Adding to the datasets of criminals’ and suspects’ fingerprints there also exist vast numbers of fingerprints stored in various databases for entirely civilian or commercial use, such as in securely identifying employees or newborn babies. Clearly, the systematic collection of fingerprints on artworks has a huge potential to demonstrate connections.
Today, we have an amazing arsenal of methods and equipment available to solve the quintessential question of ‘who done it’. But the failure to exhaust these avenues can lead to disastrous and materially damaging results.
Unawareness or willful ignorance of publicly available data as well as of oral history combined with overreliance on ‘conventional wisdom’ can lead to unjustifiable arguments and misguided conclusions. One example would be: “Jackson Pollock didn’t paint with acrylic, acrylics came later, so if the painting is in acrylic it can’t be by Pollock”.
A sweeping statement, often heard, but let us pause for a moment. In 1950, at the height of Pollock’s famous ‘drip painting’ period an American photographer took this picture in Jackson Pollock’s studio. (3.)
On the photo of Pollock’s work table are tubes of acrylic Magna paint manufactured by Leonard Bocour. Our website reproduces images of such acrylic paints from the Biro Collection of Historic Pigments.
We also know of Pollock’s interest in modern synthetic paints. An inventory of publications read by Pollock records an article by Dorothy Lee Seckler in Art News (Summer 1952 Vol. 51 No.4) that discusses just such modern materials. Pollock also attended a workshop organized by the painter Siquieros in 1936 dealing with the use of new synthetic paints. (4.)
A reading of Pollock’s widow’s financial records shows numerous examples of her attempts to conserve and restore Pollock’s paintings soon after his death in 1956. Synthetics, such as acrylics were used by conservators on many of them and varnished with acrylic resin. This brings into question later chemical analyses and possibly incorrect conclusions about works that have left Pollock’s hands. Some of these remained outside the inventory prepared by his wife Lee Krasner and the art dealers Eugene Thaw and Francis O’Connor, authors of Pollock’s Catalogue Raisonné. (5.) Bearing the “stigma” of having been excluded, some of these works have remained questionable to this day.
The efforts to analyze and resolve questions of attribution surrounding works purported to be by Jackson Pollock is only one illustration of the relevance and usefulness of the forensic approach.
(1.) Early Experiments in Pigment Analysis, Stephen G. Rees-Jones, Studies in Conservation, Vol. 35, No. 2 (May, 1990), pp. 93-101, (article consists of 9 pages), Published by: International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1506198
Art experts under attack
I read the recent article published in the Art Newspaper, Art market analysis: A market in need of supervision"(February 8, 2012). It is one of many written following the closure of the Knoedler Gallery after 165 years in business amid allegations of the sale of a fake Jackson Pollock to hedge fund expert Pierre Lagrange. The article once again raises concerns about an unregulated art market and squarely places responsibility for its failures on the market itself. A few days ago, I read a July 17th essay on the Galerie St. Etienne website entitled, “The Authentication Crisis”. The writer is not identified. The essay is a ‘state of the market’ report exploring fakes and the issues arising about them.
In the Art Newspaper article, I found the writer's reasoning, and those of some of the commentators, disingenuous. Industry professionals know that the art market cannot be regulated, it cannot be controlled. And, why even harp at regulating it as if there were some magic solution to stamp out the ever-present plague of shady deals while knowing full well that it will not happen?
To the average reader, the art market appears as an untethered criminal organization in need of a thorough shakedown. In over forty years in the business, I have met a few unsavory characters. But that’s never caused me to see the business as unsavory in general. I had the good fortune to meet and work with excellent experts, scholars, researchers and technicians. To be clear, I am not a dealer, my specialization is in art conservation and analysis.
But what the article does not address is why someone like Pierre Lagrange, a savvy businessman, did not ask even the most basic questions before signing a check for $17 million he is now suing to get back. Why would someone pay millions (or anything at all) knowing full well that the identity of the prior owner was being withheld? Why did he not request a scientific examination prior to purchasing it? Why, when told the piece was going to be included in an update to the Pollock catalogue raisonné did he not contact the authors, Eugene Thaw or Francis O’Connor, to confirm that claim? Had Lagrange done any of these, he could have confronted the issue and spared himself the consquences of this catastrophic failure of due-diligence. Knoedler could have done the same.
Surely, the transacting parties need not have a doctorate in art history or chemistry or be trained art conservators. There are plenty of reliable experts to consult in the art market community. And any fees associated with the research are a tiny fraction of what litigation may cost later.
To be clear, the market is about moving merchandise and money. That said, if dealers and agents want to stay in business, they must perform due-diligence. They must learn to accept that in the 21st century, science and forensics cannot be ignored. Connoisseurship is not enough.
And the Knoedler-Lagrange case is a perfect example. Consider the testimony of one connoisseur Eugene Victor Thaw in the case, as reported in the New York Times:
“In 2009 the work was also offered to the publishing magnate Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr., but he was advised against purchasing it by a leading expert on Pollock, Eugene VictorThaw. In a sworn affidavit, Mr. Thaw, 84, said, “I advised Si Newhouse against purchasing that painting because I did not believe it to have been painted by Jackson Pollock, nor do I now believe it to have been painted by Pollock.”
Newhouse is also the owner of the New Yorker Magazine and its parent company Conde Nast. But,
“Knoedler’s lawyers challenged Mr. Thaw’s recollection, producing a sworn declaration from another eminent scholar who consulted for Knoedler, E. A. Carmean Jr., saying that when he showed Mr. Thaw the paintings, he said he was unable to draw a conclusive judgment one way or the other.”
Connoisseurs have made mistakes, and the price for making a mistake is high. When a painting that sells for millions of dollars is later found to contain paint that did not yet exist when the painting was supposed to have been created, the utter failure to detect that is clearly the omission of the transacting parties and their experts.
The same Eugene Victor Thaw, in an Architectural Digest interview described the scientific approach thus:
“I won’t deny that more than one problematical picture has been put over the hump by a technological song and dance. But that sort of thing just doesn’t hold a candle to the connoisseur’s eye, and I think that this has turned out to be the consensus of the art market and the art world. What all those toys put me in mind of is that classic of French cinema, Dr.Knock, where the protagonist—brilliantly played by Louis Jouvet—sets up a medical practice in a sleepy little village north of Paris; he’s a trickster, a past master of sham and chicanery, who with his fads and his fancy equipment—his charts and special lights—manages to take in, in both senses of the word, all the patients for miles around.”
What an insult to modern science and technology.
The co-author of the Pollock catalogue raisonné, Francis V. O’Connor, in a recent talk entitled “Forensic Connoisseurship, Jackson Pollock, and the Authentic Eye" - which he gave on July 22nd in East Hampton seemed also to promote the visual appraisal of authenticity of works by Pollock to the exclusion of chemical and forensic testing. This is clearly not acceptable; these are outmoded methods of an old generation clinging on to the only thing they know. The legacy of such ‘connoisseurship’ resulted in claims by none other than the late Thomas Hoving, that half of the art in museums is fake.
Question is: whose eyes put them there? Will the connoisseurs please stand up?
Will a connoisseur have eyes that can provide pigment chemistry or an X-ray or Raman spectra? Of course not. That is the domain of science.
Yet, I am all for connoisseurship because without eyes and a good visual vocabulary we are blind. But, it is clearly a handicap to rely on one sense alone when dealing with issues of such magnitude and consequence.
Anyone dealing with 20th century art should be aware of the revolution in the paint industry and the introduction of myriad synthetic pigments during the past century whose patent and manufacturing dates can be determined with relative ease. Technical examinations should thus be routine practice.
The parties at both sides of the table need to include those skilled in this field. Should one have sympathy for the scholars and experts who shy away for fear of litigation? They have options: take a stand, sign on the dotted line or just stay out of the business. Any physician or lawyer is under the same scrutiny.
The reality is that the market is rife with scholars and experts embedded inside dealerships and auction houses who function well within their spheres. And, many catalogues were and still are compiled by people involved in art dealing.
And this brings me to the Galerie St. Etienne essay, which again sees that art experts are in an unfair and dangerous situation once they express their opinions. The essay is well-reasoned and paints a fair and square landscape. For example, the writer states,
“Despite the illustrious tradition of dealer-sponsored catalogues raisonné, there are those who believe that a dealer’s involvement in the marketplace compromises his or her objectivity. While this is no doubt an issue every dealer/authenticator must grapple with, no other catalogue raisonné model is entirely foolproof, either.”
And this is of course one of the gateways where fakes can easily enter the higher marketplace. Recall Knoedler’s claim that the Pollock was going to be included in the upcoming catalogue raisonné? The implicit trust in the dealer, their reputation and history?
The signature phrase by the late President Reagan comes to mind: trust but verify.
While admittedly, dealers and family members are in a unique position to record and track an artist’s work there is no assurance they get to record and recall everything correctly. Being the son of a painter myself, I am in such a unique position but I am keenly aware I would not necessarily recognize works he created before my childhood and some even after. Similarly, I recall a case where the widow of a painter did not recall a painting shown to her created by her husband. The painting was called into question. On inquiry it was discovered that the landscape was sold off the easel outside of her presence and of course it is logical that she would never have seen it. The painting is thus lost from the painter’s oeuvre, likely never to be recovered.
The essayist also touches upon connoisseurship and not surprisingly writes,
“The former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, described connoisseurship as an ineffable sense. “It is very largely a question of accumulated experience upon which your spirit sets unconsciously."
But Hoving made a surprisingly large number of blunders. Just to cite my own experience, Hoving wrote on artnet.com that I own works by Jackson Pollock – which I never have - and posted a photo of a film director that was not him. I wrote to artnet.com but never got a response.
Hoving also claimed that a large canvas owned by Teri Horton was not by Jackson Pollock. But it was later identified as a genuine work by a close friend and colleague of Pollock, Nicolas Carone. Hoving’s article is littered with errors and follows a confused timeline. His level and quality of research would get a failing mark in any high school.
"Ultimately, authenticity does not hinge on any one or two factors, but rather on the way innumerable small, subtle details hang together.” It is further stated, "Although provenance and scientific testing can assist in the authentication process, they cannot substitute for connoisseurship.”
I am not sure who suggested that it can or that it should. Scientific and historical data combined with connoisseurship are the only way to audit the overarching process.
The essayist then describes my work as a “crusade against art-world skeptics.” This is quite incorrect. Crusading implies the use of tools and methods well beyond a laboratory setting, searching for some “holy grail”. My work is nothing more than using established and proven techniques.
Unfortunately, the media has sensationalized and distorted my work through many headlines with most focusing only on fingerprints. Again, a mischaracterization. When approaching authenticity issues, I examine the entire conservation history and physical makeup of the painting first, not just look at fingerprints.
The idea of considering fingerprints as a component of authentication is not even close to being revolutionary or radical. They are simple pieces of evidence used for over a hundred years the world over. When samples exist in unquestioned artworks why should they not be compared to samples in questioned ones? And if the comparison is good, then why disregard such evidence?
And, fingerprints in paint may well belong to the forger or even the person who commissioned it. Considering recent scandals involving 20th century fakes, and that fingerprints have been catalogued throughout the 20th century, a forger may even be nabbed by these techniques. Our laboratory can easily detect them.
A radical idea? Not at all.
The essayist further writes,
“Biro announced that he had developed a process for identifying artists’ fingerprints on artworks.”
The statement is fair enough but it does need some clarification because any good forensic examiner should also be able to locate and document fingerprints in paintings. And, at times, images sent to me for examination were originally taken by police. I describe this more fully in my blog “Edvard Munch in Vienna”.
The essay further states,
“However, several fingerprint specialists interviewed for a 2010 New Yorker profile of Biro questioned the similarity of the fingerprints, suggesting they might have been applied by means of a rubber stamp. (Biro is presently suing The New Yorker’s parent company, Condé Nast, for libel.)”
The fingerprint examiners cited in the article have since destroyed the rubber stamps they created, originally intended to substantiate their “forgery” theory. This above hyperlinked interview with one Thomas Hanley contains a large number of mistakes, some no doubt by the writer.
But most importantly, the rubber stamp hoopla failed because the examiners overlooked crucial factors in their work. An Arizona online art dealer by the name of Theresa Franks commissioned and paid for their opinions.
They and Theresa Franks made a grievous blunder.
In fact, the fingerprints had already been seen by police years before I even saw the painting for the first time or ever set foot in the Pollock Krasner Studio.
Franks stated in an interview, “We worked together for about a year on that story. I supplied him (Grann) with a good number of documents. So, he took that and ran with it. It was our (Fine Art Registry's) investigation that really was the catalyst for that article."
What the essayist doesn’t mention is that the fingerprint specialists’ work has been questioned because of their use of untested theories and inappropriate working methods.
As for Theresa Franks and her Fine Art Registry, she is facing about a dozen lawsuits across the USA and is now the subject of a criminal investigation, hardly a reliable source for a magazine held in esteem.
But I digress. This present witch-hunt atmosphere in the art world is unsettling. There is a rush to judgment and an eagerness to be first to spot a fake. Dangerous stuff. The threat looms that original works will continue to fall between the cracks. Our democracy is based in part on the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. Strangely, it seems to be the reverse in the art world. Fake until proven genuine? How democratic is that?
I see this all the time. Paintings are mistaken for fakes based on scanty and inexpert examination, paintings are called fakes out of sheer jealousy or animus against the owner.
We know what witch-hunts achieved in history. This is no better. Seeing how easy it is to make the headlines and get their names higher in Google rankings, the number of fake-busters that popped up in recent years is staggering.
And the media just gobbles it all up. My ‘water test’ for fake busters is simply to see if they ever took a personal stand for anything to be authentic through their own published work. While demonstrating a painting to be a fake is relatively easy, demonstrating a painting to be real is quite a different matter - which is what I enjoy doing most. It is an enormous task and often an uphill battle.
No wonder how few people actually take a public stand arguing for what they think is authentic while fighting off endless blogs, insults and aspersions by nameless naysayers for whom this is mostly just a sport.
I attended a recent lecture by Professor Martin Kemp at IFAR in New York, who described how the research project about the recent Leonardo attribution was compromised by someone who leaked partial information to the media and hastily published a lot of incorrect information and conjecture. I saw close to nine hundred articles on an Internet search at the time. Almost all of them headlined my fingerprint work which in fact was a small part of the research project.
In summary, people in the business need to be smarter and better trained. We cannot fault the art world; all we can do is fault the individuals who bring disrepute to it.
Turner’s Landscape with Rainbow – evidence hiding in plain sight?
Sometimes the simplest things can elude us. Evidence hiding in plain sight? This could be the briefest characterization of the story of the beginnings of my involvement with forensic evidence on paintings over a quarter century ago. It originated with the simple observation of the use of fingertips in addition to the brush to apply paint to the canvas. On a visit to London, England, happenstance would take me to the Tate Gallery where most of Turner’s works are found. Being a conservator by training, I often stand close to paintings being curious about their minute details, not just the overall artistic effect. Looking at Turner’s Chichester Canal painting I noticed the way Turner painted the foliage on trees. Alas, that was not just painting with a brush only – this was finger-painting as well! His fingerprints were preserved in original paint and surface for all to see. Then the light bulb went off in my head, suddenly recalling what could be fingerprints on the painting under restoration in our laboratory. The rest is history.
Turner comparison chart
J .M. W. Turner: Chichester Canal, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, 65 x 134 cm
The fingerprints were examined by two high-ranking experts both in Canada and the UK. Both agreed the prints matched on both paintings. The painting was further researched by Phillips Auctioneers in London to their full satisfaction and successfully sold. That Turner consistently used his fingertips for painting is further evidenced by my subsequent examination of some 3,000 watercolours in the Turner Bequest at the Tate Britain, London. Of those 3000 works on paper about 1000 preserve the fingerprints of the artist. The wonderful cooperation of the Tate Britain is gratefully acknowledged in that research.
J. M. W. Turner: Landscape with Rainbow, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 137 cm, prior to restoration
J. M. W. Turner: Landscape with Rainbow, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 137 cm, following restoration
The masterpiece that was to emerge later was hidden under layers of overpainting, some in acrylic. It is not possible here to go into the lengthy project it took to remove the layers that did not belong to the original surface. The painting was first reported by Dr. David Hill in "Turner Society News 66", March 1994, when the discovery attracted worldwide media interest. Coverage focused on fingerprints found in the paint at the top left of the foreground tree, which had been positively cross-matched by Biro, Laliberté and Manners, Fingerprint department of West Yorkshire Police with fingerprints in the paint of examples in the Turner Bequest at the Tate Gallery. The painting analysis laboratory at University College, London carried out a detailed physical examination at the request of Phillips Auctioneers, and found the structuring method consistent with Turner's known techniques as described by Joyce Townsend in "Turner's Painting Techniques," 1994. Pigment analysis indicated a date of the later 1820's or after, that is, in the latter part of Turner's career. Dr. Hill wrote in the auction catalogue entry: “It has not proved possible to identify the subject with certainty. Infrared photography reveals details of a small country church to the left, partly obscured by the tree. This has a squat square tower to the left, and three pointed arches to the nave, probably perpendicular in date. This gives us an orientation northwest since the church tower will be to the west as is customary. The subject is clearly English, but a river valley such as this could be found in many widely differing regions. A suggestion that this may show a Sussex landscape would be consistent with Turner's activities in the later 1820's when he was associated with the Earl of Egremont and was a regular visitor to Petworth House in West Sussex. The painting has at some stage lost some surface layers and detail, probably in some overzealous attempt at cleaning and was consequently 'repainted'. Nevertheless, a dramatically atmospheric composition survives. Within a Claudian framework is a clockwise cycle of evaporation and precipitation. The cycle is expressed in abstract terms through color, particularly in the use of complementary mauve and yellow. The juxtaposition is most vivid at the left where the upward movement of the cyclic is at its most pronounced. Mauves and blues mark out the lines of evaporation and precipitation across the sky, and yellow marks the points at which the energy of light is at its most active, streaked across the sky in the rainbow and dappled across the land in the mid distance. The cycle is further animated by the broad impasto of the sky and the intricate interleaving of color in the middle distance. The result is an equation of abstract form and elemental content highly characteristic of the work of Turner's late career.”
Edvard Munch in Vienna - The Art Newspaper, December 15, 2011
Forensic evidence plays an important role not only in courts of law but also in many other aspects of life and culture. It now occupies a significant part in the process of attributing a work of art to the hand that created it.
It was an exciting and rewarding experience to work on the “Two Children on a Beach” painting fingerprint evidence where the proposed artist was no less than Edvard Munch.
Edvard Munch, Two Children on a Beach, oil on canvas, 90 x 100 cm
In this project over a hundred paintings were examined at the Munch Museum in Oslo searching for fingerprints that could be compared to one left in wet paint on a painting owned by Norwegian collector Håkon Mehren.
But, in the end the comparison I made was between two prints photographed by Norwegian police experts. The fingerprints were from a Munch in the Oslo museum and the one in the Mehren painting.
Sadly, I never got to see “Two Children on a Beach” painting in person. It is currently exhibited in the Leopold Museum in Vienna as ‘by’ Edward Munch and was reviewed by Clemens Bomsdorf of The Art Newspaper in the December 15, 2011 online edition.
Bomsdorf writes: "Franz Smola, a curator at the Leopold Museum, shares Mehren's confidence that the painting is by Munch. Smola confirms that when first shown in "Edvard Munch and the Uncanny" at the Leopold in 2009, it was only said to be “attributed to Munch”. The curator explained that since then a new analysis has been done "where fingerprints were examined". This, he says, confirmed the thesis that it is a "real Munch". Smola was referring to an analysis carried out by Peter Paul Biro, a Canadian art expert who runs Forensic Studies in Art."
I am very pleased to see that connoisseurship remains a broad-minded practice where science, art and history meet.
Teri's find -The unfinished story ?
The American artist Nicolas Carone was one of Jackson Pollock's closest friends. Historians referred to Carone as a primary source and foremost authority on the subject of Jackson Pollock. He was interviewed by authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith for their biography, "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga", which was later used as the basis for the 2000 film, "Pollock", starring Ed Harris.
He also said the film's comparison to Pollock's No. 5 1948, owned by David Geffen, particularly worried him. "In Teri's film, when they spliced the painting from Geffen and they showed with hers, it looked exactly the same. That made me worry," said Carone.
He suggested the previous offer for Teri Horton's painting of nine million dollars was too low: "I think the Teri painting will go for more than nine million."
Sadly, Carone passed away in July, 2010. But in a 2011 interview, Carone's twin sons, Claude and Christian, confirmed that their father was advised to keep his true, personal opinion to himself in order to "play it safe", and avoid unwanted attention. Christian Carone said it was his doing.