The problem with authenticating Warhol

While some fear the negative effects of the closure of the vetting board, others say its role was not essential

By Charlotte Burns. From News, Issue 229, November 2011
Published online: 07 November 2011

Warhol painting in the Factory in 1978. The dissolution of the authentication board has sparked debate over the future of his market

Works by Andy Warhol are due to take centre stage in this month’s contemporary art auctions in New York (7-9 November). An estimated $114m worth of art, comprising 49 works, ranging from $20,000 to $19m, will be sold; works by Warhol will represent 11% of the evening sale material. Their success, or failure, will act as a barometer for the health of the contemporary market at a time when fears of a new recession are looming.

There is, though, a twist in this month’s test of the Warhol market following the announcement that the Andy Warhol Foundation will dissolve its authentication board at the beginning of 2012.

The board, which has come under fire for its controversial decisions (see below), has acted as the sole arbiter in authenticating Warhols for the past 16 years. Some fear the negative effects of its closure. It leaves “the Warhol market adrift,” says Anders Petterson, the founder and managing director of ArtTactic. “This ship is too big to be left to free float. Despite the fact that the board was often criticised for its decisions, it acted as an anchor for a complex market characterised by large production volumes, extensive use of appropriation-based techniques and various degrees of the artist’s involvement in the final product.”

While the move “is bound to cause some type of confusion in the market in the short-term”, says Oliver Barker, the deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and its senior international specialist in contemporary art, he feels that the closure is ultimately “more an inconvenience than a major commercial disaster”.

The fact that none of the top five Warhol works sold at auction have been stamped by the board, including Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), 1963, which sold for $71.7m at Christie’s New York in 2007 (est $25m-$35m), indicates that collectors are not necessarily deterred by the lack of official approval. “Sometimes they ask whether a work has been authenticated, but more as a gilding of the lily than essential to its marketability or commercial worth,” says Brett Gorvy, the chairman and international head of Christie’s post-war and contemporary art department. Only 16 of the 49 works for sale this month have been before the board.

All of the top record-breakers are, however, detailed in the artist’s catalogue raisonné. The Warhol foundation has completed three volumes of the catalogue, documenting painting and sculpture until 1974. The foundation will continue to review works submitted for inclusion in future editions, but in its own time (unlike the authentication board, which took requests). “Our primary aim is to serve scholarship and not the market. We’re not going to have to take all the risks, do all the work and take all the lawsuits,” says Joel Wachs, the president of the foundation.

The most lucrative body of works—paintings from 1960 to 1965—has already been catalogued, and it is therefore unlikely that their value will be affected by the board’s closure. Works from this period accounted for an average of 54% of the Warhol market in the past decade, and 65% of market share in 2010, according to a report by ArtTactic in April.

It is anticipated that there will be “at least three more volumes for the 1970s, four for the 1980s, at least one for drawings and we have not even got to photographs”, says Wachs. “Much hinges on the speed with which the catalogue raisonné will inform people whether works are going to be included in the future volumes of the catalogue. And the question of whether there will be any supplementation of previous volumes is unclear,” says Peter Stern of the law firm McLaughlin & Stern.

Wachs estimates that it will take around 20 years to complete the project. How the market will react to the wait for works from the later periods, generally perceived to be less popular, is uncertain. While works from the 1960s lead the market, it is worth noting that a 1986 self-portrait sold for $32.6m at Sotheby’s New York in May 2010, making it the sixth most expensive Warhol at auction (est $10m-$15m). ArtTactic’s report found that demand for works from these periods grew during 2010, and that works from the 1980s have accounted for an average of 23% of annual auction sales for Warhol paintings.

Equally, the authentication of works on paper, notably silkscreens on paper, could be “complicated”, says secondary market specialist Christophe Van de Weghe, who says that the paintings market will be little affected, although “provenance will be more important than ever. When we dealers buy something for a client, provenance is key. You want to know who has shown it, owned it and what label is on the back,” says Van de Weghe. The auction houses agree. “We will do due diligence ourselves—like we do for 99.9% of the artists we handle,” says Barker.

Warhol, however, is not just any other artist. He was unbelievably prolific, and the range of his output (and subsequent variety of prices) allows for different types of buying from the high-profile pieces bought by major collectors to newer buyers starting with prints. Warhol is associated with American post-war optimism at its peak, and his iconic subjects and saturated colour schemes have an instant appeal. His name carries a brand power that extends beyond the inner coterie of the market and a strong level of institutional support underpins his reputation, cementing his place in art history.

Meanwhile, the deep private market includes powerful backers such as the Mugrabi family, which owns more than 800 works of art by the artist, and is prepared to invest in the long-term health of the Warhol market: during the 2008-09 downturn, the Mugrabis bought or underbid, on average, on 31% of the total auction value of Warhol paintings, and spent $36.8m on Warhol works at auction in 2010, according to ArtTactic. Jose Mugrabi declined to comment.

There are more than 100,000 works by Warhol (across all media), according to Wachs, who says that only around 6,600 of them have gone through the authentication process. “People put too much emphasis on it—around 95% of Andy’s work is still out there. The market will have to take care of itself.” Perhaps the sheer size of the Warhol market means that, like the banks, it will simply be too big to fail.

Controversial decisions

The board has spent huge sums on legal fees defending some of its decisions. Last year it forked out $7m defending an antitrust lawsuit brought by US collector Joe Simon-Whelan. He accused the board of “engaging in a conspiracy to restrain and monopolise trade in the market for Warhol works” and alleged that the board had denied the authenticity of a 1964 Warhol portrait he owned (left) that had been widely accepted by other experts as a genuine work. Simon-Whelan dropped the case in October, saying that he could not afford to continue litigation. “We have fought every suit that has been brought because we felt strongly about not setting that precedent,” said Joel Wachs, the president of the Warhol foundation.

The board rejected another work from the same series. The signed and dated self-portrait had been owned by Warhol’s former gallerist, Anthony d’Offay, included with the artist’s knowledge in Rainer Crone’s 1970 catalogue raisonné. The work was meant to be included in the Artist Rooms collection of more than 700 works, which d’Offay gave to the Tate and National Galleries of Scotland in a part gift, part purchase deal in 2008. However, the self portrait was ultimately not included after discussions with the museums. The Tate told The Art Newspaper at the time that: “We agreed with Anthony that it would be better not to include any work, the provenance of which might in any way be questioned. However, we ourselves have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this painting.”

After a three-year investigation by Swedish newspaper Expressen, more than 100 wooden Brillo boxes were downgraded in October 2010, which the late Pontus Hultén (the founding director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art) had claimed had been made with Warhol’s authorisation for a show in Stockholm in 1968. In 2010, the board declared that around 10 to 15 boxes had been produced in 1968, straight after the show, but 105 were produced in 1990, which it refers to as “Malmö type boxes”.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.