The Case of the 'Ugly' Painting

Times Staff Writer

Eleven years ago, Teri Horton walked into a San Bernardino thrift store and plunked down $5 for an "ugly" painting she thought would amuse a downtrodden friend.

Instead, the artwork's dizzying splashes of yellow, red and other shades of liquid enamel ended up putting a smile on her face. Some art experts believe the big, bright canvas may be a genuine Jackson Pollock worth millions of dollars."I still think it's ugly," said Horton, 70, a retired long-haul trucker living in Costa Mesa. "But when I look at it now, I see dollar signs."

Pollock, a leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement, created works that resemble colorful drips and splashes, a technique he achieved by dribbling paint, often straight from the can, on the canvas. Pollock's style captivated the art world during the late 1940s and 1950s, preceding his death in 1956.

Horton's painting looms 66 by 48 inches and is awash in shocking weaves of color -- characteristics that have persuaded some art connoisseurs it is pure Pollock, particularly his work from the late '40s. A forensic art specialist from Canada, Peter Paul Biro, concluded it was real after discovering one of Pollock's fingerprints on the painting.

But that wasn't enough to convince the influential International Foundation for Art Research, a New York-based nonprofit organization that specializes in authenticity and other legal and ethical issues concerning works of art. The organization declined to authenticate the painting because its origin and history are unknown.

Horton has heard all of the arguments. She believes Biro and is ready to cash in.

"I've been waiting for a long time," she said. "I have no bond with [the painting] except monetary."Horton had never heard of Pollock when she bought the painting in 1992. All that mattered was that her down-on-her-luck friend would get a good laugh from it, which she did.

Even funnier was Horton's attempt to get the canvas inside her friend's 32-foot-long mobile home. When it didn't fit, Horton took the painting home and stashed it in a closet. But it was hogging too much space, so Horton offered it to a friend who was an art professor, figuring he could use the canvas for his own work.

That's when she learned about Pollock.

"I couldn't believe it," Horton said, chuckling. "It's just such an ugly painting." It is unclear how much money the painting would bring if authenticated. However, a Pollock painting similar in size sold for $11.5 million.

With little art knowledge, she contacted experts at UCLA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and, the one that proved most helpful, AskART.com, whose president and co-founder, George Collins, referred Horton to Biro.

Biro analyzed the technique and materials. The fact that Pollock's brother lived in the Inland Empire suggested a link between the artist's work and the West Coast.

But Biro said the "real break" occurred two years ago, when he found a fingerprint on Horton's painting. Biro matched it with prints discovered on Pollock's tools, such as a turkey baster, sticks and brushes, from the Long Island studio where the artist worked.

"The fingerprint puts Teri's painting that looks like a Pollock right in Pollock's barn -- his famous studio," Biro said in an e-mail interview with The Times.

He compared his investigation to that of a detective at a crime scene.

"They scour everything for any evidence that may lead to a suspect," Biro said. "Later, a fingerprint is shown to match that of some individual's. With that discovery, this individual is placed at a crime scene.... So, my work is essentially that of placing an artist at the scene of the creation of a work of art."

However, the International Foundation for Art Research reached a different conclusion.

"We did a lot of research on the painting in question," Sharon Flescher, IFAR's executive director, wrote in an e-mail. "It was our opinion, based on the opinions of the experts we consulted and on current scholarship, that the work was not by Jackson Pollock."

Flescher noted that her group has no stake in whether the painting is a Pollock.

A sticking point is the painting's lack of provenance. IFAR has argued that without knowing the painting's history, it's difficult to determine whether the piece is legitimate. Biro dismissed that argument.

"Most of Leonardo's [da Vinci] works in museums have no known history before the 19th century," he said.

"Would we throw them out for lack of provenance? When there is a lack of exhaustive technical and scientific research ... there is typically an unbalanced importance placed on provenance."

No matter the outcome, Horton said she doesn't expect her life to change much. Even if the painting brings millions, she plans to stay in her Orange County mobile home.

Horton said she'll be generous with her two adult sons, friends, those who helped her and those who need help.

"It's not right to squander money," she said. "If not by the grace of God, I wouldn't have had this damn thing."

Times staff photographer Karen Tapia-Andersen contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°