Andy Warhol is perhaps the Contemporary Artist who best predicted the preoccupations of our times, despite dying over two decades ago. His cultivation of an artistic persona, relentless recording of the minutiae of everyday life and love of new technology in many ways prefigured the way many of us use social media to create an idealized version of ourselves to present to the world. A result of his larger than life success is the ever increasing demand of his art, and a direct correlation of that is the ever increasing amount of fake Warhol’s.
A Special Artist with Special Habits
Warhol was obsessed with documenting every aspect of his working life. He kept diaries of his social life, recorded his telephone conversations and made videos: (all be it highly staged ones) of his retinue (after all, who does not present their Facebook or twitter profile in their best light!)
His slightly chaotic manner of working: finding jobs for eccentric young people who inspired him and working on a great number of projects in a variety of media at the same time, forced Warhol to delegate many aspects of the production of his work to others. Ironically, it was this method of working, which enabled Warhol to produce such a large quantity of work, which has posed so many problems for those seeking to authenticate and deal in his work.
The Andy Warhol Foundation and it’s Authentication Problem
In 2011, The Andy Warhol Foundation decided to close its art authentication board; chiefly because it has been embroiled in too many lawsuits with collectors who had their artworks rejected. Rejecting works owned by important people does not automatically result in lawsuits; after all there are many committees around the world continuing to authenticate works successfully.
The issue with the Warhol Foundation seemed to be the criteria they employed to judge if a work was authentic. In simplified terms, the foundation would only deem a work to be authentic if Warhol had personally overseen every stage of its production. This criterion has proved highly problematic for an Artist as complex as Warhol and would not be workable for many Contemporary Artists such as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons. The main accusation leveled at the Foundation was that they deliberately made their definition unworkable, to reduce the amount of work that came onto the market. Each year the Foundation releases a very limited amount of work from its own holdings for sale to fund its other activities and suppressing the supply of work to the market would increase the prices achieved for these works.
Here’s a Real Example
An example of a controversial case was the Foundations decision to reject a Warhol self-portrait owned by the film maker Joe Simon-Whelan. Whelan purchased the work in 1989 for $195,000 from a reputable dealer as an investment, two years after it had been sold at Christie’s. He had no concerns over the works authenticity as it was signed on the side of the canvas and authenticated by the late Fred Hughes: who as Warhol’s business manager for many years and the executor of the Warhol estate.
In 2001, Simon-Whelan decided to sell the work for $2,000,000. The buyers were completely happy with the authenticity of the work but asked for it to be submitted to the foundation as a matter of course. It was then that the work was rejected by the foundation and stamped permanently ‘denied’ in red on the back of the work. A practice that has also been criticized as the dye used is permanent and can seep through the front of the work. The reasons the Foundation gave for rejecting the work were that the canvas was not typical for Warhol and because Warhol had not supervised every stage of the production. None of these should be clear grounds for rejecting it out of hand.
Simon-Whelan sued the foundation for $20,000,000, but eventually abandoned his lawsuit after around 3 years. It still ended up costing the Foundation around $7,000,000 and was a significant blow from which the authentication arm of the foundation could not recover: both financially and in terms of its credibility in authenticating works.
Combating Fake Warhol’s Today
Though the rejection by the foundation of some works attributed to Warhol is controversial, there are undoubtedly many fake Warhol’s being offered for sale as genuine. An exhibition which is currently being held at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet: commemorating Warhol’s first solo exhibition there fifty years ago draws attention to the problem. They have taken the surprising step of exhibiting fake Brillo boxes alongside two other versions of genuine examples. A decision which is even more surprising considering they were faked by the then Museums Director: Pontus Hulten and sold as genuine up to his death in 2006.
Also shocking is the fact some of the Brillo boxes sold by Hulten were authenticated by the Foundation, despite the material used to create them being wrong for the period they were supposedly from. No one in the art market doubted the Brillo boxes were genuine, as Hulten’s credentials were impeccable. He had exhibited the original works, known Warhol personally and was a respected academic.
Hulten had a number of Brillo boxes fabricated in the 1990’s and later offered these for sale, passing them off as genuine and being from the original show in 1968. The original boxes were produced as offset lithograph on cardboard. Hulten had a fabricator produce wooden copies using the original boxes as a template. Though there are authentic later versions of the Brillo boxes which were made in wood: these were different to the cardboard versions that were exhibiting by the gallery in 1968.
The Moderna Museet’s has decided to exhibit the two authentic versions alongside the fake version, to raise debate over what makes a work of art authentic. And the increasing volume and quality of fakes coming onto the art market: undoubtedly the biggest problem the Art Market faces in the 21st Century.
Fifty years on from his first solo show and twenty years after his death, one cannot help wondering what Warhol would have made of others faking his work. Obviously, we can never really know, but I suspect he would have been amused and relished the publicity and the fact that his works were sufficiently valuable to be faked. He did not feel it was essential for an artist to produce their own work by hand: once saying he wanted to be a machine. He also relished the commercial aspect of being an artist and said the best art was making money. One thing that we can be certain of however, is that Warhol will continue to be relevant to a new generation of artist for many years to come.