Culture

25 November 2013

Jack the Dripper 

The artist some called “Jack the Dripper” triggered one of the longest-standing debates over the authenticity of modern art. The dispute also challenged the supremacy of connoisseurs who claim intuitively to “know” an artist’s style.


Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionist who helped revolutionize modern art in the middle of the 20th century, died in a car crash in 1956. His lover, Ruth Krigman, insisted that a few weeks before his death, he had created a work for her that came to be called “Red, Black and Silver.” The authenticity of the painting would be disputed for decades.

The estate of Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, claimed the painting was genuine based on forensic research that matched paint on “Red, Black and Silver” with drippings on a pair of Pollack’s shoes. Another telling clue: The piece contained a trace of polar bear hair, and Pollack’s home had a polar bear rug in 1956. 

Yet this does not prove Pollock created the painting. At least one recognized authority insisted Pollock had never used the painting style in “Red, Black and Silver." Though the forensics expert, a former police detective, said he had sent people to jail on less-persuasive physical evidence than the polar bear hair, the expert remained unconvinced. 

None of this would have mattered if the piece had provenance – a documented record of everyone who has owned an artwork, dating from the time it was created. Provenance anchors the art market; without it, experts must be brought in to determine a piece’s authenticity. 

Significant money is at stake in an expert finding. A painting “attributed” to Pollock might fetch about $50,000, whereas an authenticated piece could sell for over $1 million. 

The question for art collectors comes down to who knows better – the scientist or the connoisseur. Ultimately, it may never be settled to everybody’s satisfaction.