Colette Loll Marvin, founder of Art Fraud Insights, presenting Nicholas Petraco’s findings at the Pollock-Krasner House symposium on November 8th. Photo: Helen A. Harrison.
By Helen A. Harrison
The aim of “Art From the Ground Up,” a symposium sponsored by the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at Stony Brook Manhattan last Friday, was to examine the authentication tool kit, which includes time-honored perceptive skills, diligent research, traditional forensics and the latest technology. If a work of art lacks undisputed bona fides, it has to be examined and approved by reputable authorities — connoisseurs, materials analysts and provenance investigators. To explain that process, I invited five of them to share their insights with an audience that included museum professionals, art collectors, and representatives of artists’ foundations and catalogue raisonné projects, who have a vested interest in protecting their assets from corruption.
Fakes and forgeries have been much in the news of late, most prominently in the ongoing drama of Knoedler & Company’s spectacular meltdown. (The venerable gallery, established in 1857, was forced to close when much of its inventory of modern masterpieces turned out to be counterfeits painted to order by a Chinese immigrant.) Patricia Cohen, who was awarded a 2013 Annette Giacometti Prize for her in-depth investigative reporting, covered the story in The New York Times. She gave the symposium’s closing remarks, which stressed the point that journalists, operating under various constraints, often can’t do justice to the nuances.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the New York Post’s coverage of the crime-scene style examination of a painting that belonged to the late Ruth Kligman, whose five-month fling with Jackson Pollock is vividly described in her 1974 memoir, Love Affair. The presentation by Colette Loll Marvin, a researcher who is helping her estate (Kligman died in 2010) validate her claim that the painting is by Pollock, illustrated the forensic work of Nicholas Petraco, a retired New York City police detective and respected trace evidence analyst. Petraco, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, examined foreign matter found in the painting and compared it to samples taken at and around the Pollock-Krasner House. He found enough matches — including grass seeds, sand grains, wool fibers and, of all things, a polar bear hair stuck in the paint that matches hair from a rug in the house — to conclude that the work was painted there. Unfortunately all this fascinating detective work doesn’t establish who painted it.
Authentication, as the symposium’s presenters reminded us more than once, involves connoisseurship, provenance and materials analysis, for which the standard analogy is a three-legged stool. If any leg is broken, the stool can’t stand. In the Kligman case, one leg now appears solid, while another is shaky and the third is missing. The only provenance is Kligman’s word, which is naturally suspect. What’s missing is acceptance by the connoisseurs. In the early 1990s, when Kligman submitted the painting to the Pollock-Krasner authentication board, the experts couldn’t reach a firm conclusion. They offered to include it in a supplement to the Pollock catalogue raisonné — the documentation of his known work — with the proviso that more research was needed. That left the door open to future authentication, but Kligman refused. She wanted the unequivocal approval of the board, which was disbanded when the supplement was published.
For whatever reason, the Post story and its subsequent spinoffs didn’t include this information, which Marvin discussed. Instead it was falsely reported that Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, personally rejected the painting out of spite, and that the board later refused to recognize it because they were “Krasner’s pals.” On the contrary, Krasner never even considered it, since it wasn’t submitted until after she died, and the board did acknowledge it, albeit with reservations. Apart from its obscure history — until 1999 Kligman neglected to mention it in her otherwise detailed account of virtually every moment of her liaison with Pollock — a major stumbling block is that, in the words of the eminent scholar and authentication board member Francis O’Connor, “I don’t think there’s any expert in the world that would look at that piece and say it’s a Pollock.”
So although the painting has failed the three-legged-stool exam, the headlines blare, “CSI tests authenticate Pollock’s final work,” and “Mistress Proved Right.” As with many such disputes, time, and the art market, will decide the merits of that claim.