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Joe Simon's Red Self-Portrait (1964-65), by Andy Warhol, left, and Andy Warhol's Green Car Crash, 1963

Andy Warhol Foundation

by Rachel Corbett

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Andy Warhol collectors are in a panic. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts plans to disband its authentication board, the Warhol market’s definitive source of attribution for the last 16 years. Warhol is one of the most widely traded artists in the business; in excess of 1,600 Warhol works were put on the auction block in 2010, with still additional paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and Warhol ephemera traded privately.

The foundation says that it wants to concentrate its resources on “its grant-making and other charitable activities.” The organization spends close to $500,000 a year on its authentication operations, according to Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs. Since 1995, the board has reviewed about 6,600 works. Roughly 20 percent of the submissions were denied. The board does not charge for reviews.

“We hear more and more, particularly from smaller artists from around the country, that foundations are cutting money, so are state and local governments,” Wachs said. “This year we’ll give out $13 million in cash grants, but we’d like to do more.” 

Even greater concern to the foundation is the cost of lawsuits brought by owners of rejected Warhols -- almost $8 million in legal expenses over the last five years, according to Wachs. The most famous case is the lengthy antitrust battle launched in 2007 by filmmaker Joe Simon, which accused the board of monopolizing the Warhol market and unjustly denying the authenticity of his own Warhol Red Self-Portrait (1964-65). In the ensuing controversy, it turned out that the picture had been used for the cover of a 1970 Warhol-approved catalogue raisonné.

Many observers consider the authentication board to have an uneven record at best. In earlier days, it okayed a series of Warhol sculptures that were in fact fabricated by a European museum director. One story even has the board rejecting a work submitted by Ivan Karp, the legendary SoHo art dealer who is credited by many with "discovering" Warhol. Wachs, who was appointed president of the foundation in 2001, is certainly among its most stalwart defenders. 

The foundation claims to have spent $7 million on defending itself in the Simon lawsuit, hiring as its counsel the top-shelf legal firm of Boies, Schiller and Flexner. As it turns out, the firm has ties to Warhol Foundation insider, board chair Michael Straus, an antitrust attorney who co-founded Straus and Boies, which has offices in five U.S. states. Why not settle the case instead of spending all that money? "Because it sets a terrible precedent,” Wachs said.

As for Simon, he feels vindicated by the foundation's move to dissolve the authentication board, though the status of his Red Self-Portrait hasn't changed. “By disbanding the authentication board, the Warhol Foundation has admitted that the authentication board was not qualified to say what is and is not a work by Andy Warhol,” he told Artnet Magazine.

More recently, the foundation spent another $300,000 on a lawsuit brought by Addison Thompson, the owner of a possible Warhol drawing that the board denied. "It's absurd," Wachs said in an email. "We want our money to go to artists, not lawyers!"

What kind of effect does the move have on the Warhol market? Jose Mugrabi, who owns an estimated 800 works by the artist, told the Wall Street Journal that the foundation’s decision is “totally irresponsible.” He claims to have 100 works in front of the board right now. In response, the foundation said the dissolution won’t take effect until early 2012 and it still plans to examine the 175 works submitted before the date of the announcement, Oct. 19, 2011.

Wachs suggested that the art market would get along fine without the authentication process. Only about 6,000 out of an estimated 100,000 Warhol works have the board's official stamp of approval. Among those lacking authentication is Warhol’s most expensive work at auction, Green Car Crash (1963), which sold for $71.7 million at Christie’s in 2007.

In fact, the stress over authenticity now shifts to Warhol’s catalogue raisonné, a massive undertaking that Wachs said costs about $1 million a year -- “more money, I think, than any foundation spends on a catalogue.” And the work is still not even halfway done.

Currently, the foundation has two editors, Neil Printz and Sally King-Nero, and five full-time employees devoted to the catalogue. Going forward, members of the authentication board “could easily” become consultants when special issues arise.

Finally, the move doesn’t necessarily promise an end to any legal troubles. In 1978, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation disbanded its authentication board, after it had completed Jackson Pollock’s catalogue raisonné, and it still receives legal challenges based on its inclusions and exclusions -- a version of authentication in its own right.

In 1999, the owner of the alleged Pollock painting, Vertical Infinity, sought damages from the foundation for refusing to include the work in the catalogue, which it had previously deemed inauthentic. The owner also sought a court order to require the organization to print an amendment to the catalogue. That plaintiff lost the suit, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying.

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