A couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker ran a fabulous article by David Grann about the art authentication business. If you missed it, don't fear. The New Yorker actually had the good sense to put this one online.
What happens when a masterpiece is found in Grandma's attic, but there is no signature on the bottom? After the painting is cleaned off and the painting is restretched, experts are brought in to determine if it is a DeVinci or a 17th century knock-off. Traditionally, the painting is sent to experts who have devoted their lives to studying art. They know their artists so well that they can authenticate a new painting through an intuitive process.
Kemp, who is in his sixties, is an emeritus professor of art history at
Oxford University, and has spent more than four decades immersed in what
he calls “the Leonardo business,” publishing articles on nearly every
aspect of the artist’s life. (He even helped a daredevil design a
working parachute, from linen and wooden poles, based on a Leonardo
drawing.) Like many connoisseurs, Kemp has a formidable visual memory,
and can summon into consciousness any of Leonardo’s known works. When
vetting a painting, he proceeds methodically, analyzing brush strokes,
composition, iconography, and pigments—those elements which may reveal
an artist’s hidden identity. But he also relies on a more primal force.
“The initial thing is just that immediate reaction, as when we’re
recognizing the face of a friend in a crowd,” he explains. “You can go
on later and say, ‘I recognize her face because the eyebrows are like
this, and that is the right color of her hair,’ but, in effect, we don’t
do that. It’s the totality of the thing. It feels instantaneous.”
But along comes a new guy, Peter Paul Biro, who turns around the art authentication world, by using science, specifically finger printing forensics, to figure out if it's a Rothko or a fake. It's a seismic shift. Instead of a farty old professor using intuition to authenticate a painting, here's a new kind of expert. Biro unearths a Turner and Pollock and makes himself and others very rich.
That alone would have made for a great article, but Grann takes it a step further. He starts digging into Biro's past and takes the article to whole new level. It's the best article in the New Yorker this year.