In July 2010, the New Yorker published reporter David Grann’s story about “a Canadian forensic art expert named Peter Paul Biro, who, during the past several years, has pioneered a radical new approach to authenticating pictures.” “The Mark of a Masterpiece” was classic Grann: a fascinating and detailed yarn with a shocking narrative twist halfway through.
Biro did not appreciate the story. And in June 2011, he sued the magazine and Grann for defamation. Biro’s case, however, has come to an end. Last week, a federal judge in New York ruled that the claim has no basis.
(Spoiler alert: For those who want to experience the full effect of story’s dramatic revelation, it’s best not to continue reading this post.)
Biro, who sought $2 million in damages, claimed that Grann’s story was “written and published with malice and an indifference to the standards of responsible journalism.”
Most readers might come to an opposite conclusion. The motive behind Biro’s beef? Grann’s story offered solid evidence that Biro might be a fraud.
The first half of the piece explored the analysts’s approach to identifying artwork. Biro used forensic methods to discover fingerprints on the paintings, including a potential masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci.
As Grann wrote:
He does not merely try to detect the artist’s invisible hand; he scours a painting for the artist’s fingerprints, impressed in the paint or on the canvas. Treating each painting as a crime scene, in which an artist has left behind traces of evidence, Biro has tried to render objective what has historically been subjective. In the process, he has shaken the priesthood of connoisseurship, raising questions about the nature of art, about the commodification of aesthetic beauty, and about the very legitimacy of the art world.
Biro’s work brought him a degree of fame. His technique had been chronicled in newspaper reports and talk shows. In the documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?, Biro authenticated a painting by the famous expressionist and the owner of the work was offered millions for it.
And so, with this final flourish, the glittering portrait of Peter Paul Biro was complete: he was the triumphant scientist who had transformed the art world. Like “La Bella Principessa,” the image was romantic, almost idealized–the version of Biro that was most appealing to the eye. But, somewhere along the way, I began to notice small, and then more glaring, imperfections in this picture.
The rest of the story explored the skepticism about all the fingerprints Biro kept finding. There were lawsuits over the veracity of the paintings and there were art critics who claimed that some of Biro’s authentications look more like imitations. Grann then met with a fingerprint expert from the Arizona Department of Public Safety:
In a final report, he concluded that all of them had been made by a cast from the fingerprint on the paint can. As he told me, the fingerprints “screamed forgery.”
Grann presented the evidence to Biro, and Biro denied forging the prints. And as the story came to an end, Grann left conclusions to the reader.
Which Judge J. Paul Oetken noted. In an October ruling, Oetken dismissed 20 of Biro’s 24 examples of alleged defamation in the story, explaining: “The article as a whole does not make express accusations against Biro, or suggest concrete conclusions about whether or not he is a fraud. Rather, it lays out evidence that may raise questions, and allows the reader to make up his or her own mind.”
In Oetken’s final judgement on Thursday, posted by Courthouse News Service, he invalidated the four remaining claims.
The judge ruled that Biro should be considered a “public figure” because of his prominence in the art community. As such, he was required to prove that Grann and the New Yorker acted with actual malice: “knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.”
Grann, the judge wrote, did not: he quoted sources who accused Biro of forgery, backed those up with facts and observations, and presented Biro’s side of the story.
“Such a style of reporting is far from what might be expected of an author acting with actual malice,” Oetken stated.
Biro also sued a bunch of media outlets that wrote about the story, including Gawker and Business Insider. The court dismissed those suits as well.
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