Forensics and the Art World

One of the most spectacular occurrences in the art world is the discovery of a previously unknown masterpiece by a renowned artist. The story becomes a mystery when the authenticity of the painting comes into question.  Indeed, a pivotal factor in determining the value – or lack of value – of any piece of art is proper attribution of its creator.


Nonetheless, art fraud occurs, perpetuated in part by hesitation on the part of would-be accusers and victims (purchasers of forged art works) alike to expose themselves – to lawsuit in the former case, and tremendous embarrassment and financial loss in the latter case.  Art experts also worry about the loss of standing within the art community by being taken in by forgeries.


Connoisseurs and Experts

The reliability of an expert determination of authenticity is largely dependent on the reliability of the expert in question.  This is as true in the art world as it is in law enforcement.   Many art experts maintain their reputations largely by virtue of having accumulated years of specialized experience. Fingerprint experts, in addition to years of study and rigorous application of an established set of best practices, become experts largely because they spend hours studying fingerprints. Likewise, art experts become so by studying hundreds of works of art. The concept of “connoisseurship “persists among forensic experts and in the art world alike.

Nonetheless, art authentication utilizes both art and science. In addition to the connoisseur’s eye, the process utilizes a conscientious application of accepted techniques. These techniques include dating the materials used, studying brushstrokes and researching artist’s notes and other source documents. These techniques are coordinated in creating what is known as a “provenance,” or a means of connecting a work of art with a particular artist.


Unmasking a Fraud


In some cases, attempts to authenticate art or uncover fraud crime rival techniques employed in research laboratories or high-profile police cases. Carbon dating along with chemical analysis of canvas and pigments can uncover tell-tale signs of fraud, including anachronism, or the presence of chemicals or other elements not present at the time a painting was allegedly completed. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) allows authentication without the destruction of any part of the work. X-ray diffraction, infrared micro spectroscopy, x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and x-ray fluorescence allow observers to uncover hidden layers of paintings, and provide further nondestructive techniques for authenticating art – or uncovering fraud.

X-ray technology was instrumental in disclosing that a painting long attributed to the 18th century Spanish painter Goya was actually a modern forgery. Inspection of hidden layers of paint revealed the presence of white zinc paint – which was not invented until after Goya’s death. Conservators removed a portion of the painting to reveal a completely different painting underneath the discredited work. Further inspection disclosed that the pigments of the surface painting were applied in a manner that disguised its true nature.  Conservators took the unusual step of leaving the painting in its partially disclosed state to illustrate the difficulties of detecting art forgery.

Fingerprint Matching and Forgery


In previous decades, the discovery of one or more fingerprints presented indisputable evidence of an individual’s presence at a particular location.  Every primary school student learns that his or her fingerprints are unique. So, the presence of an artist’s fingerprints on a canvas would present compelling evidence that the artwork in question was authentic. Or not.

In actuality, the identification of fingerprints, especially so-called latent fingerprints, is sometimes a matter of dispute, despite sophisticated technology such as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System used by the FBI.  In some instances, fingerprint matches may only be accomplished by technologically demanding enhancement techniques that border on outright creation, subjecting the fingerprint identification to question.  In other instances, straight up fingerprint fraud is involved.

Although the concept of forged fingerprints is mind-boggling, fans of television shows like CSI are aware that fingerprints, like other forms of evidence, can indeed be planted.  What the average person may not know is that techniques for planting fingerprints have existed for more than a century.

A fictional account of a forged fingerprint can be found in the Sherlock Holmes short story,”The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” dating from 1903.  An early real-life caper involving forged fingerprints dates from 1949, when a safecracker in the former Czechoslovakia tricked unsuspecting victims into providing their fingerprints by “reading their fortunes” from impressions they left by pressing their hands into tablets of soft clay. He then left the “fingerprints” in place of his own at various crime scenes.

Another method of forging a fingerprint is called photoengraving, essentially transforming a flat fingerprint into a 3-D cast. A third method of fingerprint forgery takes a low-tech approach – simply pressing material against an actual latent fingerprint. The resulting mirror-image fingerprint, when pressed against a third surface, reverts to a properly oriented, yet forged “fingerprint.”

In the realm of law enforcement, expert testimony on fingerprint matching, like all expert testimony is subject to the Daubert test and Federal Rule of Evidence 702, both of which aim to eliminate “junk science” perpetrated by less than reputable “hired gun” experts.

There is also a push to require certification  of forensic experts.   There is no comparable standard to validate fingerprint authentication made in relationship to disputed artworks.


In fact, fingerprint matching represents a recent – and still disputed – development in the efforts to decrease the fallibility of art authentication. This relatively new tool adapts the standard police work technique to compare fingerprints from a disputed piece of art with one or more prints the artist is know to have produced.


Jackson Pollock Was Here (Maybe)

Within the art world and the fingerprint authentication community alike, the name Peter Paul Biro is infamous.  Biro applies the forensic methods of fingerprint matching to essentially “place” the artist in physical contact with the artwork in question.

However, in the case of a disputed Pollock painting purchased in 1991 by retired truck driver Teri Horton for five dollars, the art world has remained largely unconvinced by forensic testing. Biro’s determination of the existence of a definitive match between prints found on Horton’s painting and a known fingerprint from Pollock lifted from a paint can in his studio has failed to persuade many critics of the authenticity of the painting.

Instead, the majority of the art world has followed the lead of the prestigious International Foundation for Art Research, which declared that Horton’s painting was “not by the hand of Jackson Pollock.”  Other experts have cited the painting’s complete lack of a provenance linking it to Pollock.


Investigating Art Crime

A number of state, national and international organizations and governmental agencies are involved in investigating and prosecuting art crime.  A partial list is included below.


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