As most art world aficionados now know, the November issue of Vanity Fair features a major article, by Michael Shnayerson, on the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board. The gist of the article is about the committee's all-powerful yet mysterious ways. Basically, there has been talk of inconsistency when it comes to whose Warhols get the seal of approval and whose don't. A similar version of this story is also a page-one topic of the Art Newspaper, published in England. Without recounting each piece, the articles have received so much attention that they are worth commenting on.
Late last year, I received a phone call from London from a friendly gentleman who identified himself as Joe Simon. He then shared his reason for calling. Apparently, I was included in the provenance of a Warhol painting that he now owned but couldn't sell because it had been declared a fake! This is the one phone call that every art dealer dreads. No matter how honest you are, or how perfectly you construct a deal, if you do this long enough (I'm entering my 25th year in the industry), something's bound to go wrong eventually.
After a mild rush of panic, I was relieved to hear Simon explain that he wasn't coming after me. He merely wanted my help with any information that I had about the painting. The work in question was a red Warhol Self-Portrait from 1964 -- the same pose that appeared on the U.S. postage stamp honoring Warhol. Back in the late 1980s, I had brokered the red Self-Portrait from a Los Angeles dealer to a New York dealer, who in turn sold it to Joe Simon for approximately $195,000. According to my memory of the painting, although it was unsigned, it did bear a stamp of authenticity from Fred Hughes, Warhol's business manager. The picture also came with all of the necessary paperwork.
Over time, the Self-Portrait appreciated tremendously. During the Warhol boom of the last few years, Simon was offered $2 million for it. He agreed to the deal, pending one condition -- the buyer wanted to submit the painting to the Warhol authentication board for its seal of approval. To everyone's surprise, despite all of the stamps on the back of the painting and proper paperwork, the board turned the work down. As you can imagine, Simon was livid -- and out $2 million.
He decided to take action. Apparently, he had enough media connections to convince Vanity Fair to do an article on his experience. If you read the article, you get an inkling of why his Warhol was turned down. Still, given the conceptual framework behind how Warhol made pictures, it seems pretty obvious that Simon's painting should have been judged authentic.
I then began to think about what constitutes an authentic work of art. There's a classic story about how Willem de Kooning, when he was living in the Hamptons, once painted an outhouse toilet seat. It was essentially a wooden bench with three holes in it. Some enterprising soul got a hold of it and tried to sell it as a genuine de Kooning. However, even though de Kooning decorated it, he didn't actually consider the toilet seat a work of art. It all comes down to the artist's intent.
When it comes to Andy Warhol, you can imagine all of the cardboard Brillo boxes, Campbell's soup cans and posters that he signed during his career. Are these works of art? Of course not. They are items of memorabilia. Now, can you imagine all of the above items that have made their way to the Warhol authentication board? It must be an extraordinary number and a tremendous waste of time for the board.
While I can easily side with Joe Simon, as well as the legendary Ivan Karp, who also had a painting rejected, I can also appreciate what the board must go through. I am of the feeling that despite cries of favoritism as to whose Warhols pass muster, the board basically seems to be doing a good job. It was set up to protect the value and integrity of those works which are undoubtedly real. As someone who has seen and dealt a lot of Warhols, I can only recall seeing a couple of fakes -- and they were so blatant that you didn't need the board to tell you so.
It is my hope that in the future the board will give Warhol paintings like the one owned by Simon the benefit of the doubt while coming down hard on those works which are obviously fraudulent. Once again, given Warhol's philosophy of wanting to be a "machine," any work of art that he made or authorized should be considered real -- as long as it was intended to be a work of art. It's simply a matter of common sense.
RICHARD POLSKY is the author of the newly released book, I Bought Andy Warhol (Abrams).