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Gawker, Others Sued For Writing About New Yorker Art Con Story

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A strange libel lawsuit that reads like a pulp version of the The Da Vinci Code just became a bit stranger — the controversial art world figure who is suing the New Yorker is now taking aim at other media outlets that repeated the venerable magazine’s allegations.

The case involves a Canadian man, Peter Paul Biro, who became famous for using fingerprint technology to allegedly revealed undiscovered works by the likes of Jackson Pollack and Leonardo Da Vinci. Biro sued the New Yorker this summer over a 2010 story that cast doubt on the “man who keeps finding famous fingerprints on uncelebrated works of art.”

Last week, Biro expanded his defamation complaint to include a slew of new defendants. They include Gizmodo (a site owned by Gawker), Business Insider and the International Council of Museums. Biro says the new defendants defamed him by writing articles based on the New Yorker story and now he wants money from everyone involved for the “enormous damage” to his reputation, business and health.

The original story, by David Grann, is a meticulous account that describes Biro’s “scientific” authentication technique and how it vaulted him into the elite of the art world. But it also provides a very unflattering account of the traits and behaviors that that have resulted in Biro leaving a decades-long trail of civil lawsuits and outraged acquaintances (one businesswoman says he is “a classic con man”).

New Yorker editor David Remnick responded to Biro’s libel charges by telling AdWeek in July that the case had no merit and that, “We stand with David Grann and behind the story.”

As for the lawsuit, Biro’s chances seem about as good as finding a Botticelli at a yard sale. The law of defamation means that he will have to show that the New Yorker was malicious or, at a minimum, grossly irresponsible in its reporting.

As for Gawker and the other defendants, Biro must show they were at least grossly irresponsible in using the New Yorker magazine as a source (if the story is untrue in the first place, that is).

Biro has just filed a reply to the New Yorker’s request to throw out the case, so this could drag on for a while longer. In the meantime, readers can still enjoy Gizmodo’s account of Biro, titled “Is This Man the Art World’s High-Tech Hero or Villain?” and the original article.

via Courthouse News

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4 Responses to “Gawker, Others Sued For Writing About New Yorker Art Con Story”

  1. Donna Lee Caruso

    Jeff, thank you for confirming that it is NOT ok to say someone committed a crime when in fact they did not. Looks like the plaintiff has a very strong case against these journalists, who in fact stated the plaintiff was a criminal. Lessons learned.

  2. Susan Greenberg

    Hi Jeff, I have a question: you wrote “As for Gawker and the other defendants, Biro must show they were at
    least grossly irresponsible in using the New Yorker magazine as a source
    (if the story is untrue in the first place, that is).” As an attorney, can you give readers a take on what it means for defendants such as Noah Charney, who outright said Biro was a criminal? I think your article missed an important aspect of this case; that some defendants not only used the New Yorker as a source, but more importantly also fabricated information. You can’t just say someone committed a crime when in fact they did not. What’s the chances Charney and others can actually beat this case? Looking forward to your shared response.

    • Jeff Roberts

      Hi Susan, this comes with the usual giant disclaimer that THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE but my read on it as follows:

      In the case of a public figure, the bar to establishing libel under New York is much higher than it is for a private individual. Likewise, the bar for establishing libel is higher if the writing in questions concerns a matter of public concern. Biro is arguably a public figure and art authentication is a question of public interest. That is why I say in my article that he faces an uphill battle.

      The actual legal test is likely to be: did the defendant act with malice or, if the standard is lower, recklessness? I don’t know the details of the Charney matter but if he can show that his conduct did not reach these standards, he would likely be okay.

      The law also will not find liability if the statement in question is opinion. For instance, it’s ok to say “Jeff Roberts is a blowhard” but it’s probably not ok to say “Jeff Roberts is a thief” (unless, of course, I have been convicted of theft.

      Overall, American courts do not like to allow people to use libel laws as a means of suppressing the free exchange of ideas. This is markedly different from UK courts where the problem of “libel tourism” has become notorious.

      There are also a number of public-minded websites that address the issue. The Citizen Media Law Project has a very good page here:

      Finally, of course, my advice is to consult one of New York’s accomplished media and defamation lawyers.

  3.  Interesting case. Bottom line: some writers took it too far and actually fabricated information (that Biro was jailed and he had actually committed crimes). That’s a journalistic sin. They’ll have to pay the piper. And one defendant has already settled, the publisher Dan Rattiner and probably had to fork over some heft bucks to Biro. Lessons learned.