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THE FATE OF THE $5 POLLOCK
by Thomas Hoving
 
The Gallery Delisle in east Toronto has just announced an exhibition, Nov. 13-27, 2008, of that purported Jackson Pollock painting bought for $5 by gritty retired 18-wheeler-driver Teri Horton, who became famous in the feature documentary film, Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

The price of the painting now? A mere $50,000,000.

I had a bit part in the feature documentary as the effete, nose-in-the-air art expert who pooh-poohed fake-busting on only scientific grounds. I also said that Teri’s Pollock, which I examined at length, was not by Pollock.

Because:

* It is too neat and too sweet, using soigné colors that Pollock never used.

* Some lines are perfectly straight. It’s hard to drip straight lines.

* The canvas is commercially sized, which means that paint does not come through the back of the canvas. All real Pollocks are unsized and his paint patterns can easily be seen from the back.

* The thing is painted with acrylics. Pollock never used acrylics.

I figured that the $5 picture was not a fake, but a decorator’s piece. You know, "Gimme some big abstract -- like Pollock -- but make it with the colors of my new living room." There are dozens around.

The director of the film, Harry Moses, interviewed me at length and asked me how I could doubt the painting, since on the back was a partial black fingerprint that had to be Pollock’s. A Canadian forensic scientist, Peter Paul Biro, had matched it to a partial print on some blue paint on a Devoe paint can still in Pollock’s East Hampton studio. Biro himself had found this all-but-invisible thumb print. It was oversized. Pollock must have hit his thumb and it had swelled. At least that’s what I was told.

"Was Pollock ever fingerprinted?" I asked Moses.

"Never. I suppose that’s a problem," he mumbled.

"The fingerprint could be anyone’s," I scoffed.

"Science alone is not always a good tool to prove authenticity," I pointed out to Moses.

Then Moses confided to me that Paul Biro believed he’d found the same fingerprint on a Pollock he personally owned.

WHAT?

A light bulb went off over my head. Could a fingerprint be forged or moved around? Sounded like crime-novel stuff so I soon forgot about it.

Until the second chapter in the Pollock-Fingerprint saga. Sylvia Hochfield, editor-at-large of ARTnews, wrote in June 2008 a marvelous piece about another Pollock with -- yes -- a fingerprint that supposedly matches the Devoe-can partial print and the one on Teri Horton’s painting [see The Blue Print by Sylvia Hochfield].

This Pollock is an 8 x 4 ft. specimen. Ken Parker Jr., head of Kjp Associates, private investigators in Brightwaters, L. I., was given it in the 1960s by his father. He thinks it’s real.

It isn’t.

Clever ARTnews tracked down the woman who claims she gave the painting to his father. Thelma Grossman bought it from an artist (she can’t recall his name) who worked at a place in Brooklyn called the Kopy Kats. Grossman recalled for Hochfield, "All these Jackson Pollock-like paintings. These were not Jackson Pollocks. This was a young artist who evidently was very facile and did an excellent job." She told Parker Jr. the story. "I very definitely told him it was not a Pollock. I was very explicit."

But private eye Parker didn’t think that was sufficient evidence. He signed up, guess who? Peter Paul Biro. And guess what he did? He authenticated the work.

But then, a problem.

Parker, wanting a second opinion, approached the Phoenix-based Fine Art Registry. As Hochfield reports, FAR contacted "Thomas Hanley, a fingerprint examiner and certified crime scene analyst, who studied the print along with Lawrence Rooney, a retired Suffolk County detective sergeant with 27 years of experience in fingerprint analysis." They both announced that the print on the Devoe paint can was "of no value for identification" and that comparisons between any prints in Pollock’s studio and the print on Parker’s painting were inconclusive.

Hanley in turn recommended an expert on fingerprint forgery and fabrication detection, Pat Wertheim, to look at the print. Wertheim agreed with Biro that the print on the painting was identical to the one on the blue can from Pollock’s studio.

But then, another problem.

Wertheim was convinced that the print on Parker’s painting had been forged. Someone had used an inked rubber stamp made from a cast taken from the print on the Devoe paint can.

As Hochfield reports in ARTnews, "Biro reacted strongly to Wertheim’s report, accusing him, in an e-mail to ARTnews, of "supercilious interfering; and calling his work ‘suspect.’ Wertheim, unperturbed, responded, ‘My report is scientifically verifiable’."

Harry Moses, director of Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock, also confided to me during our interview that Teri Horton had signed up Tod Volpe to create a business plan to sell her Pollock. I was astounded, knowing Volpe to be a slippery character who had served time for art fraud. Volpe had reportedly interested investors in the Pollock -- one was Tiger Woods for a quarter of a million, or so Moses told me.

Interesting.

For as Sylvia Hochfield found later, Biro "was at one time involved, as a forensic expert, in a business venture with Tod Volpe, co-owner of the now defunct Jordan-Volpe Gallery on Madison Avenue, who was convicted in 1998 of defrauding his celebrity clients and sentenced to two years in federal prison. (Volpe tells the story in Framed: Tales of the Art Underworld.) In a business plan he drew up in 2005, Volpe proposed buying the former J. P. Morgan & Company headquarters at 23 Wall Street and turning the building into a ’hub of activity and power for the arts and the artistic industries in New York City.’

"One of the components of the plan was to extend the ‘ground breaking forensic art research pioneered by Paul Biro on Jackson Pollock’s Untitled 1948 -- Teri Horton’s painting -- ‘and other art masterpieces.’ Horton’s painting was to be purchased for $15 million to $20 million, according to the plan, and then sold for $40 million to $60 million. Three other pictures attributed to Pollock were also available, for prices ranging from $20 million to $75 million. ‘Additional forensic pictures’ to be ‘marketed and promoted’ were three Turners (prices up to $15 million) and works by Constable, John La Farge, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Volpe did not respond to a request for more information.

"Biro told ARTnews, ‘Many dealers have approached me. What I do usually produces discoveries -- some positive, some negative -- so dealers pay close attention to what I do. Volpe was one person who tried to capitalize on newly discovered paintings that came out of my laboratory. I made it clear that there is a firewall between me and whatever business dealings anyone does on the outside. I’m untouched by the art market.’ Biro said that Volpe’s venture was ‘dead’ and that he had nothing to do with the dealer."

So when you rush to Toronto and the Gallery Delisle, do ask to see the famous blue fingerprint. It could mean a lot.

All these artistic fingerprints reminded me of the time when I was running the Metropolitan and a chap brought in the "authentic Mona Lisa."

"Why this one," I asked.

"Because it has Leonardo’s fingerprint on the back."

I was convinced. For every art historian knows that the FBI fingerprinted Leonardo da Vinci in 1492 when he joined Opus Dei.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


For a Letter to the Editor regarding this article, click here