Journalist Settles Libel Lawsuit with Art Restorer

Patrick Bahners, photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung
Journalist Patrick Bahners has settled his part of a libel lawsuit with Canadian art restorer Peter Paul Biro who alleged Bahners published untrue statements about his methods of art authentication. 

Bahners became entangled in a massive libel case stemming from a July 12, 2010 16,000-word profile in New Yorker magazine, written by David Grann, in which Peter Paul Biro and his family of art conservators from Montreal, Canada, are depicted as criminals, according to the lawsuit. He is the second defendant to settle out of court with Biro

Biro launched his lawsuit in June, 2011 in US District Court, Southern District of New York, against Grann and New Yorker magazine's parent company, Conde Nast, who filed motions to have the case dismissed. But in August, 2012 Judge J. Paul Oetken ordered that statements in the article potentially had defamatory implication and he refused to dismiss claims based on those statements. Biro is seeking $20-Million from the defendants.

Bahners penned his follow-up article a full year after the judge's decision, and shortly after publication in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Bahners was added to the lawsuit.

The details of the settlement were not made public. But one analyst said it marks a turning point in a case which may have grave implications for the chief defendants David Grann and Conde Nast. 

Veteran investigative journalist Harry Moses, who for years produced CBS' 60-Minutes, said Grann made a mistake by relying on a bad source for his article in the New Yorker. "I think [David Grann] relied too much on Theresa Franks. She's been largely discredited," Moses said.

In a 2011 interview, Franks, an art dealer from Arizona, claimed she was the "catalyst" for the article, a claim Grann neither confirmed nor denied, but has been cited by legal experts as the defendants' "Achilles' heel" in the lawsuit.

Franks published scathing articles on her websites and blog for years, damaging Biro's reputation as an innovator and pioneer in the field of painting analysisparticularly of forensic evidence, that may tie a painting to the artist's hand, or to that of a forger. 

Franks hired a fingerprint examiner, Patrick Wertheim, to "double-check" Biro's methods. Wertheim produced a report for Franks which, together with Franks' articles, insinuated that Biro fabricated fingerprints by means of a rubber stamp and then planted them on the artwork, something David Grann further insinuated in his New Yorker article.

Grann's article set off a bit of a media feeding-frenzy, and it wasn't long before other articles appeared, stating Biro was "a forger" and that his family had done "jail time". None of the articles produced any proof for such claims.

Shortly after Biro filed his lawsuit, many articles which portrayed Biro badly were retracted.  Manhattan Media published a public apology and the Daily Beast issued a correction.  Based on the New Yorker article, Business Insider had included Biro on a list of "Nine of the Biggest Art Forgeries of All Time." After the suit was filed, they suddenly removed Biro from the list and renamed it, "Eight of the Biggest Art Forgeries of All Time." One media outlet clearly and publicly admitted they misinterpreted the Grann article and apologized, and other articles simply vanished.

Since Franks became a defendant in the case, her venomous articles on Biro have completely disappeared from the internet, in effect, retracting all of the claims that Grann so heavily relied upon for his article. Her numerous art-related websites are all gone too, and the only thing that remains on her former blog is an advisory notice claiming all information on the site has been "rescinded, deleted and destroyed." 

And Franks' fingerprint expert, Patrick Wertheim, who Grann also relied upon for his article, is currently under investigation by the International Association for Identification (IAI) for evidence tampering, evidence fabrication and obstruction of justice in a murder case. The results of which are still pending.

Another primary source for Grann's article, Marion Hendler, claimed her late husband invested with Biro’s father in a painting, and insinuated it was switched with a cheap copy. However, according to court records, Biro and his father’s estate sued her for libel but she never appeared in court to face Biro, and defaulted, thus legally admitting to the falsity of her claims.

Judge Oetken's ruling came just weeks after a hugely embarrassing scandal involving New Yorker magazine journalist Jonah Lehrer, who resigned after admitting plagiarism and also fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his best-selling book, Imagine.

Biro would not comment on the case. Likewise, his attorney, Richard A. Altman, would not comment except to confirm that a settlement had been reached and that his client had withdrawn his claim. Neither Bahners nor his attorney could be reached for a statement.