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What Is a Warhol?: An Exchange

In response to:

What Is an Andy Warhol? from the October 22, 2009 issue

exchange_1-121709.jpg
Andy Warhol’s Red Self Portrait, 1964, owned by Anthony d’Offay

To the Editors:

Please find attached a letter in response to Richard Dorment’s article “What Is an Andy Warhol?” [NYR, October 22].

Sarah Whitfield
London, England

Richard Dorment draws attention to legal issues concerning the authentication of works by Andy Warhol. In his admirably clear account of the class-action lawsuit bought by the film producer Joe Simon-Whelan and other yet-to-be-named plaintiffs against the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., and the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc., Dorment mentions that the owners of works submitted to that authentication board “must sign a document saying that they will not challenge its verdict in court.”

We would like to point out that owners of works submitted to the committees named below are also asked to sign such a waiver. This is common practice as well as common sense. Given the value of the works concerned, the potential loss in value incurred by owners of works considered not to be authentic, and the litigious nature of the art world, those who serve on these committees are justified in demanding legal protection in return for offering their opinions on the authenticity of the works presented to them.

However, your readers may be interested to know that the decisions made by the committees named below are made in an advisory capacity. That is to say, if a work offered for examination is found not to be authentic, or if there is reason to have doubts about the authenticity, it is not marked or stamped with the negative verdict (nor is it seized, a course of action taken by some committees in the past). Thus, if at a later date new evidence comes to light, or if the committee is found to have erred in its judgment, the work is in no way compromised physically.

It is generally accepted by most authentication committees that however solid the expertise of their members, and however rigorous their examination of the evidence put before them, their opinions are not always infallible. Authenticating works of art is fraught with difficulties, and no more so than when considering the art of the recent past.

Comité René Magritte
Francis Bacon Authentication Committee
Arshile Gorky Foundation

To the Editors:

As an artist who deals heavily with the idea of intent within my own work, I’m concerned by the way in which the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board has dealt with several cases of authentication. You need only to look at the scope of the artist’s oeuvre to see the many instances in which works could be easily forged, reproduced, stolen from the Factory, or otherwise compromised. The fact that any works, such as that of Joe Simon-Whelan’s, with near impeccable provenance have been stricken from the record of art history is such an injustice.

Who’s to say that any of the works at the time of Warhol’s death that were stored away or left unsigned in various stages of completion were ever considered to be finished or even satisfactory works by Warhol himself? What was deemed to be “a genuine Warhol” and stamped by the estate after his death? The board has denied works that have been previously deemed genuine works by earlier incarnations of the board, including works like Simon-Whelan’s that have notations by Warhol’s former executor Fred Hughes; and in other instances it has approved of works that were never conceived by Warhol, and in some cases works that were even created after the artist’s death.

Case in point are the 105 so-called “Stockholm Type” Brillo boxes supposedly from 1968 that have now been widely acknowledged as forgeries. These boxes were created by the late curator Pontus Hultén for a Russian exhibition in 1990 (three years after Warhol’s death); later Hultén sold a number of these boxes with false provenance stating that they were exhibited in 1968 in Stockholm. The most troubling thing is that Hultén was a well-respected curator who decided to add work to Warhol’s oeuvre. Olle Granath, a curator who later became director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and Paul Morrissey publicly stated that the sculptures were not real and yet this information was ignored by the Warhol Art Authentication Board and Foundation.

The boxes were submitted to the board in 1995, while Lord Palumbo was director of the foundation, and ninety-four of them were deemed to be authentic. Palumbo and others close to the board own several of these boxes; this is acknowledged in the Warhol catalogue raisonné. On November 12, at an auction at Phillips de Pury & Co. in New York, a Brillo Box sold for $842,500, a price that would make the ninety-four authenticated “Stockholm-type” boxes worth some $79 million, if sold as genuine works by Warhol.

The board seemingly pushed these boxes through without question and they were obvious fakes. (According to press reports, the board says it is now reviewing its decision in light of the controversy.) I’ve seen these boxes; they look all wrong and are inconsistent with any of the versions known to have been produced by Warhol in the Factory. These works appear to hold no art historical value and at the very least should be open for debate. What is needed is transparency within the Warhol Art Authentication Board. There is simply too much at stake to have such a small number of persons in control of the fate of some of the most influential and important art of the last century.

Charles Lutz
Brooklyn, New York

Richard Dorment replies:

When, in these pages [“‘What Is an Andy Warhol?’: An Exchange,” NYR, November 19], I asked Joel Wachs, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation, how it was possible that its authentication board could accept the signature, date, and dedication on the Red Self Portrait owned by Anthony d’Offay as genuine and yet still maintain that the picture is not, I never expected to receive an answer—and I haven’t. Instead, Wachs took the extraordinary step of visiting the offices of The New York Review of Books—not to respond to or dispute a single fact concerning the authenticity of the paintings in question, but to personally deliver material to my editors that he believed would serve to discredit me. Specifically, he accused me of not disclosing an involvement I had in the case.

What this involvement amounts to is that in 2003 I tried to help Joe Simon-Whelan to determine why another work in his collection that he believed to be by Warhol had been turned down by the authentication board without explanation. My intervention mainly took the form of introducing him to my friend the late Bob Rosenblum, who was then a member of the board, with the idea that Bob might be able to tell Simon-Whelan what the problem was. Given the board’s policy of secrecy, Rosenblum was unable to do that directly, but eventually and after some correspondence between us in which I initially misunderstood his hints about what might be wrong with the piece in question, he was able to persuade the lawyer for the board to explain why it had been rejected. Simon-Whelan instantly accepted the reason as valid, and never raised the matter again.

Wachs has provided me with a perfect example of why the board’s policy of secrecy is so wrong. Instead of giving a simple explanation for a decision, as other boards do, the board leaves it up to the bewildered owner to guess why a picture has been denied. It then stamps the word “denied” on the picture, a practice specifically avoided by other boards, as the letter from the three boards published here makes clear. In the case of the Red Self Portraits no creditable explanation for the denial has ever been produced. If one had been, the owner would not now be pursuing this case in court. (As the letter from Charles Lutz shows, moreover, the board has in some cases been willing to approve as Warhols works that were shown to be fakes.)

Since I’ve always made my partisanship in this matter clear, I fail to see how any of this reflects on the credibility of what I write. Wachs’s attempted smear on a purely voluntary effort to help Simon-Whelan merely underscores the desperation of this “charitable” group—which has yet to dispute any of the actual facts concerning the authenticity of the Red series.

Wachs, who is charged with protecting Warhol’s legacy, is trying to use his clout to intimidate critics of the board, rather than to reform his institution. In this instance lawyers will be using large amounts of the Warhol Foundation’s funds in an attempt to prove that the artist was wrong to authenticate his own painting by signing it and allowing it to be published in the first catalogue raisonné of his work. According to Wachs, they expect to win in court. Win what exactly? The right to close down scholarly debate on Warhol’s working methods? Warhol’s right to select his own oeuvre? Well, I suppose Wachs may succeed—but then where has truth gone in all this? Or is that not the concern of the foundation?

But I wonder whether there may not have been another reason for Wachs’s visit to Hudson Street. The previous week someone who identified himself as the director of a well-known New York gallery wrote to the editors of The New York Review forcefully supporting the position taken by the board. What the correspondent failed to mention, however, was that he was also a contributor to The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts, edited by Ronald D. Spencer (Oxford University Press, 2004). His reticence on this point is understandable, for Mr. Spencer is not only a lawyer for the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board but also its media spokesman. A puff on the jacket of the book says that it is “required reading for anyone who owns or buys a work of art.” And who wrote this? “Joel Wachs, President, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.”

In view of the writer’s undeclared association with the legal counsel for the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, and considering that one of the allegations in the Simon-Whelan lawsuit is that powerful galleries and dealers enjoy a special relationship with the Andy Warhol Foundation, the editor of TheNew York Review wrote to the writer to ask whether his gallery had “ever purchased a work by Andy Warhol directly from the Andy Warhol Foundation.” Without answering the question, the dealer immediately withdrew his letter. I hope that if he, or any other dealers, turn up in the courtroom as a witness for the defense, the judge will ask the same question before taking their words at face value.

Though I am unable to quote from the letter, I want to address some of the arguments in it, because I think we may hear them again in the courtroom. The writer mentioned the evidence for the authenticity of the Red Self Portraits cited in my article, and in every instance dismissed it as irrelevant. For instance, he discounted Warhol’s signature on the d’Offay Red Self Portrait because Warhol occasionally signed ephemera such as real Campbell’s soup cans or cheap reproductions of his own work.

But as an art dealer, surely he knows that there is a vast difference between a signed soup can, the value of which lies mainly in the artist’s autograph and which can be bought on eBay, and a painting on canvas signed by the artist that is potentially worth millions. So far as I know, no one—not Warhol himself, and no reputable scholar, critic, dealer, or curator—has ever displayed a real can of Campbell’s soup signed by Warhol as a work of art. Nor has one ever been included in a catalogue raisonné. On the other hand, the Red Self Portrait owned by d’Offay was published with the artist’s full knowledge in Rainer Crone’s 1970 catalogue raisonné.

That didn’t worry the dealer in the least. He simply explained away this incontrovertible fact with the ingenious—and entirely specious—argument that the inclusion of a work of art in a catalogue raisonné is meaningless, since attributions change over the years and from one such publication to another. But what may be true for an old master like Rembrandt or a long-deceased artist like Modigliani is obviously absurd in the case of a living artist who personally collaborated with the author of his own catalogue raisonné. Rainer Crone’s catalogue appeared in 1970 and was revised in 1972. At the time of the revision Andy Warhol had the opportunity to deny the authenticity of the portrait, but did not do so.

That Warhol considered the Red Self Portraits at least equal in importance to canvases for which he personally supervised the silk-screening process is confirmed by his choice of one for reproduction in color on the dust jacket of the 1970 catalogue raisonné. Just in case any doubt remains that it was Warhol who sanctioned the use of this particular work of art for the cover, he also signed the dust jacket of d’Offay’s personal copy of the catalogue across the Red Self Portrait.

But the board seems to believe it knows better than Andy Warhol himself which pictures are or are not authentic based on preconceived ideas that exclude the possibility that a picture may not look like a typical Warhol precisely because it is innovative or experimental. The board has decided that he was a traditional artist whose participation in making his own work is crucial to its authenticity—indeed one of its members, Neil Printz, has actually said, “I wanted to catalogue Warhol like they catalogued Picasso.”* But Warhol is an utterly different and much harder to categorize artist than Picasso. Part of Warhol’s historical importance is that he prepared the way for a future generation that includes Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Martin Kippenberger, and Takashi Murakami—all of whom conceive the idea or choose the image, medium, and scale of a work of art, but leave the execution or manufacture to others.

  1. *

    Kelly Devine Thomas, “Authenticating Andy,” ARTnews, September 2004.

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