The iPad makes a perfect coffee table book and photo browser but a new application called Art Authority sends the touchscreen interface back through centuries of humanity’s finest imagery.

Built by 1980’s Apple engineer Alan Oppenheimer, Art Authority (iTunes link, $9.99) is a beautiful way to get some art education and ponder the human condition while flipping through more than 40,000 historic works of art on your iPad. Oppenheimer calls the app a public domain and web art browser. It makes good use of Wikipedia, has a great breadth of Western art and is the kind of app that just makes sense for this platform.

The app isn’t perfect, Oppenheimer reminds us almost no one has developed iPad apps on a real iPad yet, but it’s pretty good and will presumably get better. If you need a guaranteed 100% crash-free experience for viewing Van Gogh and Botticelli in your lap, you may want to wait a while on this app. It’s not a big deal, though. The resolution of the art ranges from fabulous and sharp to a little disappointing, but is generally satisfactory.

Some additional settings would be nice; like the ability to change the duration of caption overlays and to save favorite artists and images in the app for later enjoyment. Artists from outside the Western world and a better sculpture section would be great, too.

The iPad’s interface is just big enough and just sharp enough, and these images are just clear enough, that it can be frustrating to be so close and yet so far away from the art. It certainly isn’t the same as standing in front of the great paintings of the world – but let’s not fool ourselves: browsing the world’s museums in your lap is an experience unlike any other and is not to be missed. Personal computing has come a long way in a hurry if our expectations can be higher still for a whirl-wind tour of centuries of human expression. You’ll definitely get more than $10 worth of art appreciation and personal growth out of this app as it is already.