A 50-year-old fingerprint on the side of a paint can fuels an attribution to Jackson Pollock—and charges of forgery.
As the controversy over the “Matter Pollocks” found in a Long Island storage locker fades away, another painting attributed to Jackson Pollock has become the center of a dispute. A Long Island couple, Ken and Kathy Parker, believe that the painting, which was given to Ken Parker’s father more than 20 years ago, is a work by the artist. Four experts who have examined a fingerprint on the back of the stretcher disagree about it, one asserting that it is Pollock’s and another charging that the print is forged. Meanwhile, a New York woman says that she gave the painting to Ken Parker Sr. and that it most definitely is not a Jackson Pollock.
Thelma Grossman, a retired product designer who lives in Lower Manhattan, told ARTnewsthat she bought the painting in the early 1980s from an artist in Brooklyn whose name she doesn’t remember and then, a year or two later, gave it to Ken Parker Sr. Grossman said that about four years ago she told Ken Parker Jr. that the work was not by Jackson Pollock.
The expert who authenticated the painting on the basis of the fingerprint on the stretcher is restorer Peter Paul Biro of Montreal, who claims to have had much experience with Pollock fingerprints. A few years ago he attributed to Pollock a print on the back of a painting purchased in a thrift shop for $5 by retired California truck driver Teri Horton (the story is told in the film Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?). Biro also attributed to Pollock a fingerprint on a painting from the cache found in a Long Island storage locker by Alex Matter, the son of Pollock’s friends Herbert and Mercedes Matter. Both attributions were controversial. Most scholars reject them, and other fingerprint experts have questioned Biro’s competence.
In 2005 Biro attributed the Parker painting to Pollock after he compared the print on the stretcher to a print on a can of Devoe blue paint said to have been used by the artist shortly before his death; the can is now in the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center in East Hampton, New York. Biro said that the print on Parker’s painting also matched the one on Teri Horton’s painting.
Parker, head of Kjp Associates, private investigators in Brightwaters, New York, told ARTnews that he approached the Phoenix-based Fine Art Registry (FAR) because he wanted a second opinion. (In a video made by FAR spokesperson David Phillips that can be viewed on the FAR Web site, the Parkers describe their dealings with Biro to FAR founder and CEO Theresa Franks.)
After being contacted by Parker, FAR called in 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.
Hanley’s report cast doubt on Biro’s conclusions. He said that the print on the 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. (The report is available on the FAR Web site, and Hanley explains it in Phillips’s video.) Hanley recommended that FAR ask Pat Wertheim, a criminalist in the Arizona Department of Public Safety and an expert on fingerprint forgery and fabrication detection, to look at the print.
Wertheim agreed with Biro that the print on the painting was identical to the one on the paint can—for a surprising reason. He said that the print on the painting had been forged by someone who used an inked rubber stamp made from a cast taken from the print on the can. (Wertheim’s report is also available on the FAR Web site.)
“Fingerprint forgery is a plot device in fiction,” Wertheim told ARTnews. “But in real life, this is only the second confirmed legitimate fingerprint forgery in the literature.” (The first case, he said, involved a safecracker in Bulgaria in 1946.)
“I’m not an art expert,” Wertheim said, emphasizing that it was the fingerprint, not the painting, he was branding as a forgery. He had no opinion on the authorship of the painting. Nor did he speculate on the origin of the forged print. “I have not accused anybody of forging the fingerprint,” he said. “I don’t know who forged it. It could have been anybody with access to that painting.”
Ronald Spencer, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s attorney and the author of The Expert Versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts, cautioned that no one can say with certainty whose print is on the paint can. “Nobody knows what Pollock’s fingerprints looked like,” Spencer told ARTnews. “He was never officially fingerprinted. No one has an image of his fingerprint. This famous paint can—who’s to say it’s Pollock’s fingerprint? There were a lot of people out there who could well have picked up the paint can. Even if it is Pollock’s, we wouldn’t know it, because there’s nothing to match it to.”
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.”
Parker also showed his painting to Richard Taylor, an associate professor of physics at the University of Oregon who made news two years ago when he studied six of the Matter Pollocks. Using a controversial technique he had pioneered, Taylor rejected the attribution of the six paintings to Pollock because their consistent patterns, or fractals, didn’t match those he had found in Pollocks whose authenticity is not in doubt. In an e-mail to ARTnews, Taylor said that he had “analyzed the patterns in Ken Parker’s painting” in 2005 but couldn’t comment “on Ken Parker’s attribution of his painting to Jackson Pollock.”
On his Web site, Biro claims that he was the first person to use fingerprint science in art authentication when he identified a painting by Turner by successfully matching a fingerprint left in the painted surface with one on an undisputed painting by Turner. Since then, he says, he has built “the world’s first ever database of artists’ fingerprints with now close to 2000 impressions.”
He 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.
One person is certain that Ken Parker’s painting is not a Pollock. Thelma Grossman describes herself as “a great admirer of Abstract Expressionism” who is capable of distinguishing an authentic work by the artist from a fake. She told the Fine Art Registry about the artist who made the Parker painting, in whose Brooklyn studio she saw “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.” He belonged, she told ARTnews, to a group of artists she had read about in a magazine who called themselves Kopy Kats.
Grossman moved, and there was no place in her new apartment for the 4-by-8-foot painting, she said. She sent it to her East Hampton house, but it didn’t fit there either. In the early or mid-’80s, she said, she gave it to Ken Parker Sr., who worked for her husband. About four years ago, she added, Ken Parker Jr. contacted her. He told her he wanted to know more about the painting.
“I very definitely told him it was not a Pollock,” Grossman said. “I was very explicit.”
Both Ken Parker and Teri Horton still have their paintings. Parker said that he had “entered into a financial agreement with somebody” regarding his painting, but he declined to give details.
“I’d like to get to the truth of the matter,” he said. But he believes that he owns a genuine Pollock. “I have no reason to doubt it,” he said. “I certainly hope it is.”
Sylvia Hochfield is editor-at-large of ARTnews.