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artworld csi

July 5, 2010

[NewYorker] A Canadian forensic art expert named Peter Paul Biro, during the past several years, has pioneered a radical new approach to authenticating pictures. He does not merely try to detect the artist’s invisible hand; he scours a painting for the artist’s fingerprints, impressed in the paint or on the canvas. Treating each painting as a crime scene, in which an artist has left behind traces of evidence, Biro has tried to render objective what has historically been subjective. In the process, he has shaken the priesthood of connoisseurship, raising questions about the nature of art, about the commodification of aesthetic beauty, and about the very legitimacy of the art world. Biro’s research seems to confirm what many people have long suspected: that the system of authenticating art works can be arbitrary and, at times, even a fraud.

[…]

Lawsuits had piled up against Peter Paul Biro and his family business. In two instances, there were allegations that art works had vanished under mysterious circumstances while in the care of Peter Paul. In one of the cases, Serge Joyal, who is now a senator in Canada, told me that he left a nineteenth-century drawing with the Biros to be restored. Before he could pick it up, Peter Paul notified him that it had been stolen from his car and that there was no insurance. Biro, however, never filed a police report, and Joyal says that Biro pleaded with him to wait before going to the authorities. During their conversations, Joyal says, Peter Paul acted evasive and suspicious, and Joyal became convinced that Biro was lying about the theft. As Joyal put it, “There was something fishy.” Though Peter Paul said that there was nothing “suspect” about his behavior, and that he should not be held liable, the court awarded Joyal seven thousand dollars, plus interest.

Elizabeth Lipsz, a Montreal businesswoman who had once been close to Biro, and who won a lawsuit against him for unpaid loans, described him to me as a “classic con man.” Her lawyer told me that Biro “was so convincing. He was very suave, soft-spoken, but after a while you catch him in different lies and you realize that the guy is a phony.”

Within Montreal’s small art world, there were whispers about Peter Paul Biro and his father. But the lawsuits appear to have attracted virtually no public attention. In 1993, Peter Paul Biro filed for bankruptcy, and he never paid many of the judgments against him, including what he owed the Wises and Joyal. Lipsz’s lawyer said of Biro, “He oiled his way out of that whole thing. . . . He got away scot-free.”

When I met with Sand at his law office, in Montreal, he told me he was amazed that Biro’s history had not tarnished his reputation and that he had reached such an exalted position. He said that, for years, he had read with curiosity about Biro’s authenticating paintings using forensic science. He looked at me intently and asked, “What’s the deal with all those fingerprints?” (read)

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