November 25, 2011 10:25 pm

Thorny issues

Verifying artworks, including easy-to-fake Warhols, can be a tortuous process

The performance at auction of works by Andy Warhol underpins the whole market for postwar art. In the most recent New York auctions alone, 49 Warhols went on the block, the most expensive making $16.3m. Last year his turnover at auction was a stunning $313.5m, with more than 1,120 works sold.

Warhol is also very easy to fake, particularly as the 100,000-odd pieces he produced had varying degrees of “hands-on” input.

This is why the news that the Andy Warhol Foundation is to dissolve its authentication board at the beginning of next year was greeted with consternation in some quarters. Warhol was a hugely prolific artist but also notoriously chaotic, particularly after he founded the Factory in 1962, where he employed “art workers” to mass-produce silk screens and prints. As a result, the market includes works that are borderline: made in the Factory, but by assistants and without any Warhol involvement.

The board has been the sole arbiter of the artist’s work for 16 years, with the task of sorting out the genuine from the fake. Get the precious stamp of approval, and your Warhol could be worth millions. Get the dreaded “denied” stamp, and it would be virtually worthless.

But the board’s decisions have sometimes been highly controversial, and it has been repeatedly targeted by costly lawsuits – which was the reason given for its disbandment. The most famous case is that of Joe Simon, who fought for years over his $195,000 “Red” self-portrait of Warhol. It is one of ten “Red” portraits, one owned by the London dealer Anthony d’Offay. The board twice rejected Simon’s picture – leading to it being “double denied”.

In a somewhat surreal decision, the board gave this reason for rejection: “It is the opinion of the authentication board that said work is NOT the work of Andy Warhol, but that said work was signed, dedicated, and dated by him.” Simon ultimately dropped the case, saying he had simply run out of money.

Joel Wachs, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation, commenting on the decision to close the board, said: “I don’t want to spend $7m a year on lawyers,” explaining that the foundation had better things to do with its money: it gives generous grants in the art world.

The Warhol board is not the only one to be disbanded because of lawsuits. In 1995, the Pollock-Krasner board was also dissolved, after it was dragged through the courts over works it pronounced inauthentic. For owners of putative “Pollocks”, the upside is clear: Jackson Pollock (“Jack the Dripper”) is one of the most expensive artists of all time: his piece No. 5, 1948 sold for $140m in 2006.

As with Warhol, the possibility of making huge gains has led some owners to challenge the boards, even accusing them of antitrust activity. This argument goes that there is a conflict of interest in that the boards that authenticate works may also have holdings of the same artist’s works (the Andy Warhol Foundation has over 10,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings, 66,000 photographs, as well as film and video – and a thriving business in merchandising). They therefore have a commercial interest, say critics, in denying some works in order to increase the value of works they themselves hold.

Even after the Pollock-Krasner foundation had disbanded its board, in 1999 an action was brought by the owner of a so-called Pollock, “Vertical Infinity”, who demanded damages because the foundation refused to include it in the catalogue raisonné, the list of all the works by the artist. The plaintiff lost: among the work’s problems was the fact that the artist’s name was misspelled on the back. More recent controversies over attribution have involved a group of 32 “Pollocks” found in storage on Long Island, and a $5 find in a garage sale – by truck driver Teri Horton – of another “Pollock”, which inspired the documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

Inclusion in a catalogue raisonné is the equivalent of authentication – when it exists. But the problem for the Andy Warhol Foundation is the vast number of his works across all media – meaning the final, completed catalogue raisonné is not expected for another 20 years.

For other artists, it all depends which catalogue raisonné you are talking about. Probably the most-catalogued artist is Modigliani, with five separate catalogues produced by five separate scholars. The auction houses only follow one, however, when assessing works. Some of the others are suspected to include inauthentic works that were allegedly fabricated by the authors themselves.

Modigliani, again, is an artist with lofty prices (his record is almost $69m for a painting, and last month a work on paper sold for more than $1.2m). So the pressure on those compiling the catalogues is high.

When the Parisian curator Marc Restellini was working on the artist’s drawings under the auspices of the Wildenstein Foundation, both were taken to court by Swiss collector Edgar Baravel for rejecting two of his drawings. The court pronounced one drawing genuine and ruled that it should be included – whereupon Restellini and Wildenstein abandoned their task. At the time, Restellini even claimed to have received death threats from other owners of works he was examining. There is still no catalogue raisonné for the drawings, although Restellini says he would like to continue it one day.

Opinions vary over whether the dissolution of Warhol’s board will affect the market – the same people who were on the board are now doing the catalogue raisonné, which will be the authority. There seems to be no overall magic answer for authenticating works of art: every method is flawed.

Dealers and auction houses, who have every financial incentive to avoid fakes, will continue to use whichever authority they think is the most reliable, and they are the ones who know. The boards could be better regulated, to avoid conflicts of interest. Specialists disagree – sometimes violently – among themselves. Artists forget what they painted: they sometimes even authenticate fakes. Andy Warhol, who spent his life blurring high and low art, would no doubt have loved it!

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