Art Historian Expert Testimony

Art appraisal and authentication is sometimes held out as a non-technical and non-scientific area of expertise, and as such, not subject to rigorous testing.[1] But to what extent is this simply excuse mongering for an immature field of study? The law has seen way too much of this sort of rationalization in criminal forensic studies.[2] If an entire field of learning suffers from unreliability because of its reliance upon subjective methodologies, lack of rigor, inability or unwillingness to use measurements, failure to eliminate biases through blinding, and the like, then do expert witnesses in this field receive a “pass” under Rule 702, simply because they are doing reasonably well compared with their professional colleagues?

In the movie Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollack, the late Thomas Hoving was interviewed about the authenticity of a painting claimed to have been “painted” by Jackson Pollack. Hoving “authoritatively,” and with his typical flamboyance, averred that the disputed painting was not a Pollack because the work “did not sing to me like a Pollack.” Hoving did not, however, attempt to record the notes he heard; nor did Hoving speak to what key Pollack usually painted in.

In a recent case of defamation and tortious interference with prospective business benefit, a plaintiff sued over the disparagement of a painting’s authenticity and provenance. As a result of the defendants’ statements that the painting at issue was not created by Peter M. Doig, auction houses refused to sell the painting held by plaintiff. In litigation, the plaintiff proffered an expert witness who opined that the painting was, in fact, created by Doig. The defendants challenged plaintiff’s expert witness as not reliable or relevant under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Fletcher v. Doig, 13 C 3270, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95081 (N.D. Ill. July 21, 2016).

Peter Bartlow, the plaintiff’s expert witness on authenticity, was short on academic credentials. He had gone to college, and finished only one year of graduate study in art history. Bartlow did, however, have 40 years in experience in appraisal and authentication. Fletcher, at *3-4. Beyond qualifications, the defendants complained that Bartlow’s method was

(1) invented for the case,

(2) was too “generic” to establish authenticity, and

(3) failed to show that any claimed generic feature was unique to the work of the artist in question, Peter M. Doig.

The trial court rebuffed this challenge by noting that Peter Bartlow did not have to be an expert specifically in Doig’s work. Fletcher at *7. Similarly, the trial court rejected the defendants’ suggestion that the disputed work must exhibit “unique” features of Doig’s ouevre. Bartlow had made a legally sufficient case for his opinions based upon a qualitative analysis of 45 acknowledged works, using specific qualitative features of 11 known works. Id. At *10. Specifically, Bartlow compared types of paint, similarities in styles, shapes and positioning, and “repeated lineatures” by superimposing lines from known paintings to the questioned ones. Id. With respect to the last of these approaches, the trial court found that Bartlow’s explanation that the approach of superimposing lines to show similarity was simply a refinement of methods commonly used by art appraisers.

By comparison with Thomas Hoving’s subjective auditory methodology, as explained in Who the Fuck, Bartlow’s approach was positively brilliant, even if the challenged methodologies left much to be desired. For instance, Bartlow compared one disputed painting with 45 or so paintings of accepted provenance. No one tested Bartlow’s ability, blinded to provenance, to identify true and false positives of Doig paintings. SeeThe Eleventh Circuit Confuses Adversarial and Methodological Bias, Manifestly Erroneously” (June 6, 2015); see generally Christopher Robertson & Aaron Kesselheim, Blinding as a Solution to Bias: Strengthening Biomedical Science, Forensic Science, and Law (2016).

Interestingly, the Rule 702 challenges in Fletcher were in a case slated to be tried by the bench. The trial court thus toasted the chestnut that trial courts have even greater latitude in admitting expert witness opinion testimony in bench trials, in which “the usual concerns of [Rule 702] – keeping unreliable testimony from the jury – are not present.” Fletcher at *3 (citing Metavante Corp. v. Emigrants Savings Bank, 619 F.3d 648, 670 (7th Cir. 2010)). Citing Seventh Circuit precedent, the trial court, in Fletcher, asserted that the need to rule on admissibility before trial was lessened in a bench trial. Id. (citing In re Salem, 465 F.3d 767, 777 (7th Cir. 2006)). The courts that have taken this position have generally failed to explain why the standard for granting or denying a Rule 702 challenge should be different in a bench trial. Clearly, a bench trial can be just as much a waste of time, money, and energy as a jury trial. Even more clearly, judges can be, and are, snookered by misleading expert witness opinions, and they are also susceptible to their own cognitive biases and the false allure of unreliable opinion testimony, built upon invalid inferences. Men and women do not necessarily see more clearly when wearing black robes, but they can achieve some measure of objectivity by explaining and justifying their gatekeeping opinions in writing, subject to public review, comment, and criticism.

[1] See, e.g. Lees v. Carthage College, 714 F.3d 516, 525 (7th Cir. 2013) (holding that an expert witness’s testimony on premises security involved non-scientific expertise and knowledge that did “not easily admit of rigorous testing and replication”).

[2] See, e.g., National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (2009).

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