Defamation In The Art World: The Case of the Authenticator

Are you ready for a defamation case begging to be turned into a Dan Brown book?

Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Paul Biro. A Montreal native and renowned art authenticator, Biro is known for his quest to transform the science of art authentication. You see, Mr. Biro favors a more C.S.I. approach to authenticating artwork, as opposed to esoteric methods; while Biro thinks fingerprints are the way to identify “orphaned” fine art, his opposing contemporaries insist it’s all a matter of art history knowledge and something more ethereal, a “gut feeling.”

The New Yorker Article About Paul Biro That Launched A Defamation Lawsuit

Secrets of the Art World

Did you know that the world of art authentication is as clandestine as S.P.E.C.T.R.E? Since it is often difficult to identify the provenance of an artwork, the worth of many pieces is solely reliant on the opinion of an expert who primarily deals in the realm of hermeneutics. In fact, art authenticators fear “product defamation” lawsuits so thoroughly that it is often difficult to get them to commit to their reasoning for labeling one piece a treasure and another trash.

Mr. Peter Paul Biro sued the New Yorker magazine and author David Grann for defamation. You see, Mr. Grann investigated “cutting-edge” art authenticator Biro and wrote a captivating piece of journalism about the aforementioned. Suffice it to say, the work raised questions about Biro’s place in the art authentication world, not to mention his character.

A classic case of old school v. new school, right? Well, that is what David Grann must have thought, and like any good investigative journalist he got down to the business of sniffing around the art world. The result was a 2010, highly entertaining, seemingly well-researched 16,000-word piece in The New Yorker entitled,“The Mark of a Masterpiece.” In it, Grann skillfully detailed Biro’s family background, raised germane tales of Biro’s dad, Geza, who started “Center for Art Restoration” and called himself a doctor despite not have the credentials. Grann also raised some interesting questions about the reliability of fingerprint evidence when authenticating art.

Is Biro Famous or Not? It Matters When Filing a Defamation Lawsuit

The first hurdle Biro had to clear was the issue of status. Was he or wasn’t he a public figure? Under United States defamation law, different rules apply for private citizens and public figures. In short, public figures must provide a higher preponderance of evidence to win a slander or libel suit. If Biro was able to argue, successfully, that he was a mere private citizen, than he would only have to prove that the New Yorker and Grann printed the article with “reckless disregard for the truth.” In other words, they didn’t do enough research before green lighting.

What, Exactly Did Grann Say?

So, the big question is, “what did Grann say in his article that prompted Biro to stomp to the court house in high dudgeon?” Basically, Grann raised questions about Biro’s past, namely his association with another art dealer — who supposedly defrauded Jack Nicholson — and the pair’s attempt to start a business selling “orphaned art.” The article also shed light on a series of lawsuit brought against Biro and his father in the 1990s and Biro’s unwillingness to let the scientific community conduct a double blind study of his “historical fingerprinting detection” techniques.

But U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken ruled that Biro, by virtue of injecting himself into documentaries and other media offerings concerning art authentication, “advanced himself” as a “leader in the art authentication field.” As such, Biro is beholden to the standard of actual malice. So, in order to win the defamation suit, Biro would have to prove that both Grann and the New Yorker purposefully lied in a pre-meditated attempt to damage Biro’s reputation.

In the end, Judge Oetken sided with the New Yorker and Grann, reasoning the author did not act with actual malice and that Biro did not show sufficient evidence that Grann intended to harm the plaintiff by publishing the story. Particularly, the judge opined that Grann’s essay was “bereft of express accusations, but rather lays out evidence that may raise questions and allows the reader to make up his or her own mind.”

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