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February 9, 2011

The Journal of Art Crime: Essayist Simon Cole on Connoisseurship

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

In one of ARCA’s three scholarly responses to David Grann’s “The Mark of a Masterpiece,” published in The New Yorker in July 2010, Simon A. Cole penned an editorial essay, “Connoisseurship All the Way Down: Art Authentication, Forgery, Fingerprint Identification, Expert Knowledge” in the fourth issue of The Journal of Art Crime (Fall 2010).

Simon A. Cole is Associate Professor & Chair of the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification (Harvard University Press, 2001) and Truth Machine: The Contentious History of DNA Fingerprinting (University of Chicago Press, 2008, with Michael Lynch, Ruth McNally & Kathleen Jourdan). His work has been published in numerous criminology journals, Art Journal, and Suspect (MIT Press, 2005), the 10th issue of the design award winning series Alphabet City. He is co-editor of the journal Theoretical Criminology.

ARCA blog: Professor Cole, if you were given a Caravaggio painting to authenticate, would you trust an art historian or a forensic art expert? Would your preference for the type of expert change if the painting was a 20th century Van Gogh or a 21st century Jackson Pollock?
Professor Cole: I don’t think the point I was making would change based on the period of the painting. But the point I was making was that we can’t really know whom to trust! Certainly, there is an appeal to thinking “science” is preferable to “I know it when I see it” connoisseurship. But, there’s also an appeal to thinking that only an art historian can evaluate all the evidence in all its complexity. And, much of forensic science turns out to essentially be “I know it when I see it” as well (which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong).
ARCA blog: In your essay, you compare art “connoisseurship” with the art – not the science – of identifying fingerprints. Would you have the same level of doubt about the authenticity of a painting’s creator based on the identification of a fingerprint as you would the guilt or innocent of a murderer identified by a “fingerprint expert”?
Professor Cole: Yes! In both cases, the fingerprint attribution would be a valuable piece of evidence. But one would also have to consider the possibility that the attribution is erroneous, which it could be due to a variety of causes (such as fraud, unintentional error, and the possibility of another individuals with very similar friction ridge detail). One would then have to consider this evidence in conjunction with all the other relevant evidence.
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