The painting above—a possible Jackson Pollock purchased by retired truck driver Teri Horton for five dollars in 1992—recently made headlines again: Gallery Delisle in Toronto, Canada, is now offering it for 50 million U.S. dollars.
Nicknamed “Teri’s Find,” the source of the painting’s potential monetary value is a partial fingerprint that may belong to Pollock.
The 2006 documentary, Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?, outlines the painting’s saga. Horton purchased the large work at Dot’s Spot Thrift in San Bernardino as a gag gift for a friend. (A fan of Norman Rockwell, she appreciates paintings that are “pictures.”) When the painting wouldn’t fit through the door of her friend’s mobile home, Horton put it in a garage sale. An art teacher spotted it and told her it might be a Jackson Pollock. Horton responded, “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?” Soon her obsession to authenticate the work took hold.
After several frustrating rounds of phone calls with galleries in various U.S. cities, a gallery employee informed Horton the painting needed a verifiable provenance (a history linking the work from artist to present owner) to be considered authentic. Horton only had the bill of sale from Dot’s Spot Thrift, which had since closed, and the owner’s whereabouts were unknown.
Horton’s next strategy was to concoct a tale so detailed and outlandish galleries would not question its veracity. Nevertheless, the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) refused to authenticate the painting. Horton was back at square one.
By this time it was 2001, nearly ten years after the initial “discovery.” Horton seemed to have reached an impasse, but then she found Montreal-based forensic scientist and art authenticator Peter Paul Biro on the internet. Upon examining the canvas, Biro located a usable fingerprint on the back. Pollock had never been fingerprinted, however, so there was no immediate way to determine a match.
After extensive research, Biro found a print on a known Pollock that did match, except it was too large. Next Biro scoured Pollock’s studio in East Hampton and found a print on a paint can that he claims is an exact match. (Veteran fingerprint examiner Tom Hanley denies this, however.)
The documentary shifts from curiosity to intrigue during an interview with Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to him, the painting simply doesn’t look like a Pollock. He states: “Fingerprints, all this stuff, is kind of that lovely ‘what if.’ It’s not essential to the heart and the artistic soul of that thing [the painting], and that has no Pollock soul or heart.”
Hoving’s above-the-law arrogance is off-putting, and he seems genuinely irritated as he mentions enticing bits of information that raise more questions than the documentary answers. For example, the fingerprints in question are either partial or the wrong size, which means they wouldn’t stand up in a court of law as evidence. Why, then, should they launch the value of a five dollar thrift store find into the millions?
Spurred by news of Gallery Delisle’s decision to offer “Teri’s Find” for sale, Hoving recently wrote an article that sheds light both on his demeanor and the constructed nature of Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? He states: “I had a bit part in the feature documentary as the effete, nose-in-the-air art expert who pooh-poohed fake-busting on only scientific grounds.”
Hoving, then, was playing a role.
Also significant is that many of Hoving’s statements which make the authentication ordeal seem farcical were edited out of the documentary. For example, paint bleeds through to the back of Pollock’s canvases but “Teri’s find” lacks this telling characteristic. Hoving also mentions that the director of the documentary, Harry Moses, confided during filming that Biro believed he’d found the same fingerprint on a Pollock he personally owned. The word “forged” immediately crossed Hoving’s mind, but it “sounded like crime-novel stuff, so I soon forgot about it.”
The saga takes many more twists and turns, including Biro’s alleged involvement in a proposed business venture with Tod Volpe, the dealer who was convicted in 1998 of defrauding his celebrity clients. Significantly, Volpe is the individual Horton eventually enlisted to help sell her work. Apparently she serendipitously found his book Framed in a bookstore, bought it, read it, and contacted him. Horton isn’t bothered by Volpe’s criminal past, because she believes the entire art world is a fraud.
One issue that puzzles me is why Horton hired Biro before conducting a thorough search into the whereabouts of the owner of Dot’s Spot Thrift. What exactly did that person know about the painting, if anything? I also noted contradictions within the film, like when Ben Heller, Pollock’s friend, said Pollock never would sell a canvas for less than the thousands he thought it was worth. On the other hand, Volpe says the artist would get drunk and give paintings away.
Are unauthenticated Pollocks floating around out there? Maybe, but one thing is certain: we don’t have to depend on fiction for art-related mystery and suspense, not to mention drama.
“Teri’s find” is on view and for sale in Canada because Horton feels the U.S. art market turned its back on her. She wants an international buyer to have her painting, though she admits she would not reject a higher bid from an American buyer over a foreign one.
“Teri’s Find” is on view at Gallery Delisle in Toronto through November 27th. Will it sell, and if so, for how much? Pollock’s No. 5, 1948, currently holds the world record for most expensive art sale.[UPDATE] For a follow-up on this article, click here.