Counterfeiting and Authentication in the Age of Forensics

Fascinating article in this week’s New Yorker by David Grann entitled “The Mark of a Masterpiece”. It concerns shifts in the ways in which paintings are authenticated or revealed to be forgeries — in particular,  the use of forensic techniques such as fingerprinting that claim to bypass the traditional methods of the art expert or connoisseur to scientifically validate authorship or otherwise. It’s a topic that I touched on in the “deception” chapter of In Praise of Copying, noting the complexity of all claims of authenticity.

It’s interesting how easily the alleged forger becomes an alleged expert and vice versa.  The piece, “classic sprawling New Yorker stuff”, as the Charlie Kaufman character in Adaptation puts it, is elegantly written, showing how Peter Paul Biro, a Canadian art expert, debunks the claims of art world connoisseurs with his forensic methods … but then reverses itself in the second half, to examine the possibility that Biro himself is forging fingerprints in order to establish authentications.  While the author concludes that maybe the old fashioned methods of the connoisseur are perhaps more to be trusted than the flashy new gimmicks of the scientist, my own conclusion is that there are no claims of authenticity that are simply true.  Everyone is to some degree copying, and all methods of establishing authenticity can be copied.  Caveat Emptor. I think that behind the author’s faith in the connoisseur is the notion that even when two paintings look identical, the one that is the original must necessarily be the more aesthetically satisfying and that therefore someone with a refined aesthetic sensibility can not only make aesthetic judgments, but distinguish originals from copies.  I greatly admire the ability to discern very subtle differences between objects, but I find the way that this ability is deployed in making judgments of authenticity by no means self-evident.

Speaking of which, it’s striking how almost every event, every action, every actor in the piece involves money. The paintings are valuable or not, the opinions of experts cost money, even the journalist gets paid to write a piece. Which is to say that the question of authenticity, of what is original and what is copy, is an economic question. It involves commodities and commodification.  And commodification is itself mimetic, as Marx told us.  The object that appears in the marketplace, the expert opinion that is sold for $2000 a day — are already “copies”, with that dazzling power of the copy to enchant – and deceive – us.  The copies proliferate … and the more we look for them, the more we find them, everywhere around us  …

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