By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New evidence of the authenticity of a drip painting said by some to be abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock's final work, was presented at a conference of art experts on Friday.
The painting, including polar bear hairs trapped in the paint that match a pelt rug from his studio, is owned by Ruth Kligman, an artist who was Pollock's mistress and the only one to survive when a drunken Pollock crashed his car in which she and a friend were riding in 1956.
The latest turn in the debate over the painting's long-disputed provenance has pitted the rarified art of connoisseurship, still supremely valued by auction houses, against the sort of blunt science more commonly used at murder scenes.
Kligman, who died in 2010, had long maintained that Pollock made the 20-by-24-inch painting - untitled but commonly known as "Red, Black & Silver" - in front of her at his studio on a canvas she gave to him, a few weeks before his death.
"This evidence is just another piece all along the way that has only supported Ruth's story about the creation of the painting," Davey Frankel, an artist and a trustee of the Kligman estate, said on the sidelines of the New York City conference.
Although the multiple experts who have previously scrutinized the painting have never found material evidence to contradict Kligman's account, the board established by Lee Krasner, Pollock's widow, to authenticate and catalog his artworks would not certify it as genuine before disbanding in 1995.
TELL-TALE HAIRS AND SEEDS
Krasner, while she was still alive, made no secret of her dislike for Kligman, and Kligman and those close to her believed that personal animosities tainted the connoisseurship of the board Krasner hired, which its members disputed.
On Friday, the findings of a forensic scientist who examined the painting were shown to a Manhattan audience that included one former authentication board member, employees of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and two trustees of Kligman's estate.
Nicholas Petraco, a forensic sciences professor at John Jay College and a former New York police detective hired by Kligman's estate, analyzed hairs, fibers, sand grains and seeds embedded in the paint.
Earlier this year, he was granted access to Pollock's old studio and home in East Hampton on Long Island, now designated as a national historic landmark, where he collected fibers and hairs from Pollock's loafers among other materials to use in a comparison.
The sand and seeds matched those found around his home, and the human hair and fibers matched those found in Pollock's loafers, Petraco concluded.
Petraco, who once performed forensics work for customs agents, said he was confused by the animal hairs until he realized they matched samples he had for polar bears, whose pelts were banned from import into the United States in the 1960s.
Returning to Pollock's home, he found a large rug made out of a polar bear's pelt.
"The questions have been answered, leaving little doubt that ‘Red, Black & Silver' is in fact a work by Jackson Pollock - his last," Colette Loll, a forgery expert, said in her presentation.
The painting is held on consignment by the auction house Phillips, which postponed a planned sale of the painting last year for the research to take place.
Patty Hambrecht, Phillips's general counsel, said in an interview on Friday that if the work were listed as "attributed to Pollock," its reserve price would be as low as $20,000. If it were listed as "by Pollock," it would command at least $1 million, she said.
But she said the new evidence was not enough for Phillips to certify the work.
"The current state of play in the art world is that scientific testing can prove a negative - it can prove that something is not authentic," she said. "Art should not be reduced to science, and there has to be some element of connoisseurship and judgment that goes into the determination."
In short, she said, there were really only two Pollock connoisseurs with the power to confer authenticity - Eugene Thaw or Francis O'Connor, two former members of the authentication board - and it is they who would have to be persuaded by the new evidence.
If Phillips and the estate cannot agree on a listing price by March, the painting will be returned from consignment, she said.
Thaw could not be reached for comment on Friday. O'Connor, however, rose to speak after the presentation.
"I don't think there's a Pollock expert in the world that says it's a Pollock ... I am not convinced," he said, adding that the painting remained full of "ambiguities."
Later, he rebuffed questions on what might cause him to reconsider his earlier opinion.
"You heard what I said in public," he said. "Beyond that: Enough!" he added before striking the ground with his cane and leaving.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Steve Gorman and Ken Wills)