Is This Man the Art World's High-Tech Hero or Villain?

This is Peter Paul Biro. Depending on who you ask, he's either using fingerprinting, forensic science, and state of the art spectral cameras to uncover lost art masterpieces, or using that same technology to manufacture them.

Biro is famous for pioneering the use of fingerprint matching in the contentious world of authenticating artworks—proving, say, that a lost Da Vinci is, in fact, a Da Vinci—and he is the subject of a sprawling, gripping report by David Grann in this month's New Yorker.

His techniques and technologies have gained him significant renown in the art world, and he is employed by public museums and private collectors alike to verify the provenance of hugely important (and hugely valuable) paintings by artists ranging from Jackson Pollack to Michelangelo. He does this by matching fingerprints on the canvasses in question with those found on verified artworks, aided by a one-of-a-kind camera that he designed himself. Grann explains:

To my surprise, Biro showed me another laboratory, in a locked basement. Here, he said, he kept his most revolutionary device: a multispectral-imaging camera, of his own design, which was mounted on a robotic arm and scanned a canvas from above. The device could take photographs of a painting at different wavelengths of light, from infrared to ultraviolet, allowing him to distinguish, without damaging the work, the kind of pigments an artist had used. (Previously, tiny samples of paint had to be extracted and submitted to chemical analysis.) The multispectral camera could also reveal whether an older painting was hidden beneath the surface, or whether a picture had been restored. And if a fingerprint was present the camera could pick up extraordinary levels of detail. Biro once boasted that his invention surpassed "any camera today" and was "the only one of its kind in the world.

Is This Man the Art World's High-Tech Hero or Villain?

But Grann quickly began to find cracks in Biro's story, tracing a long history of purported fraud and manipulation of artworks he was employed to restore (his family worked in restoring art before Peter Paul eventually moved into the field of authenticating it). At the end of this tangled yarn comes a striking accusation: Biro had actually planted many of the fingerprints that supposedly verified the authenticity of the paintings he was charged with evaluating.

Just like the art he works with, it's hard to pin down the true story behind Peter Paul Biro. But as shown in the New Yorker piece (which you should really read in full), Biro's complicated cameras and forensic techniques have only introduced a new layer of uncertainty to the hazier corners of art history. [New Yorker]

Top image via New Yorker, second via