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Andy Warhol or Gerard Malanga, 315 Johns, 1967 or 1971, location unknown
Andy Warhol or Gerard Malanga, 315 Johns, 1967 or 1971, location unknown

Malanga v. Chamberlain


by Rachel Corbett
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When car-parts sculptor John Chamberlain died last month, at the age of 84, he took one secret with him to the grave. Where is 315 Johns, the 10 x 14 ft. grid of red eight-by-eight-inch silkscreened portraits of Chamberlain, purportedly done by Andy Warhol? The work was the subject of a five-year-long legal battle between Chamberlain and longtime Warhol assistant Gerard Malanga, and though the suit was settled last year, no one seems to know who is in possession of the painting.

To recap, Malanga sued Chamberlain in 2005 after learning that the sculptor had sold 315 Johns for $3.8 million in 2000. Malanga accused Chamberlain of passing off as authentic a work that he knew wasn’t really by Warhol, but was in fact made by Malanga himself and two friends in 1971, apparently as some kind of tribute to Warhol. Warhol never even knew the work existed, Malanga claimed. Beyond that, it wasn’t Chamberlain’s to sell, Malanga said. It was his, and he’d only been storing it at Chamberlain’s loft.

Malanga’s story was corroborated by Jim Jacobs, one of the alleged co-creators of the work (the other, Irene Harris, died in the 1970s). It was also affirmed by Chamberlain’s ex-wife, Lorraine, who said in court proceedings that Chamberlain repeatedly referred to the work as the “fake” Warhol.

For his part, Chamberlain insisted that 315 Johns was the real thing, and the Andy Warhol Foundation agreed, authenticating the painting shortly before Chamberlain sold it, and including it in the second volume of the artist’s catalogue raisonné (with a date of 1967). Chamberlain said that he had acquired it directly from Warhol in exchange for a sculpture or two of his own. The only witness who could attest to this, he said, was curator Henry Geldzahler, who died in 1994.

In any case, the lawsuit was settled last summer, and the terms are confidential. But the question remains, where is 315 Johns? It's the central mystery of the case. Chamberlain’s bank statement shows a $3.8 million wire transfer into his account, but lists no name, address or number for the buyer (in a sterling example of what critics refer to as the "unregulated" art market at work). Bizarrely, Chamberlain said that he couldn’t remember who purchased the picture and had no idea where the money came from. His dealer at the time, Arne Glimcher of Pace Wildenstein, testified that he had no knowledge of the sale.

Left, Andy Warhol or Gerard Malanga, 315 Johns, 1967 or 1971, and right, Farrah Fawcett, 1980
Left, Andy Warhol or Gerard Malanga, 315 Johns (detail), 1967 or 1971, and right, Andy Warhol, Farrah Fawcett, 1980

So could it turn up now as Chamberlain’s estate is sorted out? Or might it show up in the hands of a big Warhol collector, like newsprint magnate Peter Brant, who publishes Warhol’s Interview magazine, or art dealer Alberto Mugrabi, who owns an estimated 800 works by the pop master? Both men were asked about the work during court proceedings, but neither responded.

In any case, it seems unlikely that the work would surface on the art market. Though it has the Warhol Foundation stamp of authenticity, the picture may well have had its value lessened through Malanga's charges.

When reached for comment, Peter Stern, Malanga’s lawyer in the case, noted, “The fact is that the world knows that Gerard Malanga says he created them. I don’t know whether anybody would be willing to buy it.”

It’s certainly not the first time a Warhol has prompted such a dispute. Just last week the art world saw new developments in the case of Warhol's portrait of Farrah Fawcett, which has a reported value of $30 million. The late actress’s trust says that all the artworks in her estate -- and the 1980s portrait was purported to be among them -- were to go to her alma mater, the University of Texas. But the school couldn’t find this particular work until an episode of the reality show Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals aired and showed the picture hanging above the bed of Ryan O’Neal, Fawcett’s friend and lover (and father of her son).

The university filed suit against O’Neal to take possession of the painting. But O’Neal claims the work has always been his and that he never tried to hide it. He says he befriended Warhol in the 1970s and, after introducing him to Fawcett a decade later, the artist created two portraits, one for each of them.

The latest news comes after Fawcett’s friend, filmmaker Craig Nevius, suggested on Good Morning America that O’Neal was a thief. O’Neal in turn launched a defamation suit against him. Last week, a judge denied Nevius’ motion to dismiss, giving O’Neal the go-ahead to sue for $1 million.

It could very well take years of picking through their affairs before the truth about Fawcett’s and Chamberlain’s Warhols are revealed -- if ever. As Warhol once said, “Dying is the most embarrassing thing that can happen to you, because someone's got to take care of all your details.”

RACHEL CORBETT is news editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email