Judging Andy
By Michael Shnayerson

Published in Vanity Fair 18th july 2007

They tend to look nervous as they come, bearing their packages, to the red-brick warehouse on far-west 20th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Up on the seventh floor of the Andy Warhol estate building, they add prints and paintings to the pile that gathers there three times a year. Soon enough, they get a telltale letter from the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board. Some return to pick up their works with obvious relief, but many, many others storm back in grief or rage. “It’s a depressing job,” admitted a young elevator man on duty to a stunned collector on the way down not long ago. “People have so much hope, and they come out just crushed.”

In the netherworld of great artists’ estates, some panel of experts is usually on tap to determine the authenticity of once humble paintings that now sell for millions of dollars. They may debate, they may equivocate. None, though, has seemed so capricious as the Andy Warhol board. None has stirred such indignation, such loathing, and such fear.

Much of the fault lies with the artist himself. Sixteen years after his untimely death at 58 from complications following gallbladder surgery, Warhol is the hottest name, by far, in modern art. His silkscreened prints, with their globally recognized images, have doubled in value in the last three to five years. Prices for his important paintings have risen as much as tenfold in that period.

But as demand has increased, so has the number of forgeries. “Warhol is the most famous artist in America,” says Manhattan art dealer John Woodward, “and the most faked.” Forgers have a field day because Warhol was also among the world’s most prolific artists - hundreds of paintings, thousands of prints - thanks to his pioneering production of “mechanized” art, for which he employed helpers both inside and outside his “Factory” sites. Forgers can start with the same photographic images Warhol did, and sometimes knock off silkscreens only an expert can distinguish from the originals. Often, as a result, the Warhol board is simply blamed as the messenger of bad news to hoodwinked buyers.

For some time, though, disturbing stories have wafted out from that red-brick building into the art world. Gallery owners and dealers have submitted works signed by Warhol or authenticated by the executors of the artist’s estate, only to have the board declare them, in its words, “not the work of Andy Warhol.” Works that Warhol discussed or produced in the company of Factory assistants have been denied despite multiple affidavits from those assistants. The board has even reversed its own judgments, creating huge confusion.

Unlike some such boards - sculptor Alexander Calder’s, for example - the Warhol board never officially explains why it’s denied authenticity to a work. That would help the forgers. So an owner is left to come up with his own theory for why the painting he bought in good faith for perhaps several hundred thousand dollars or more is now worthless.

Nor do the owners have any recourse: to have their works reviewed, they have to sign a contract by which they forgo any right to a legal appeal. The contract says the board will issue “merely an opinion,” but the board’s opinion is, like a king’s, the only one that counts, and so over this huge domain of the global art market the board’s power is absolute.

To a wide range of disgruntled gallery owners, dealers, and collectors contacted by Vanity Fair, those opinions are suspect. Few such boards, they observe, are linked to a foundation that has had troves of the late artist’s work to sell - a potential conflict of interest. Critics say the board plays favorites: the same painting may be authenticated when submitted by one dealer, they suggest, but denied if submitted by a less established one.

Underlying many of the stories is an issue more philosophical than financial. When the board declares work “not the work of Andy Warhol,” does it just mean actual fakes? Or does it, as many of the stories suggest, often mean works that were by Warhol, but not in the board’s opinion intended by the artist to be shown or sold in art?

And if so, how do the board’s members have the gall to judge that?

Joe Simon, a U.S.-born filmmaker and British art-world habitué, has spent most of the last two years pondering that very question. His harrowing odyssey with the Warhol authentication board began soon after July 2001, when he found a buyer, through a London gallery, for a Warhol painting he’d bought in 1989. Simon had paid $195,000 for the work, a red silkscreened self-portrait done in 1965. His buyer had agreed to pay $2 million. The only condition was that Simon submit the work to the Warhol authentication board.

(The buyer was told by Georg Frei, a consultant for the Warhol Authentication Board that it was best if the painting was submitted to the authentication board. Mr. Simon was told by the board that it would add interest to the painting if it was submitted and included in the new catalogue raisonne which the board are involved in)

Simon did so without hesitation, signing the legal waiver that explained, among other matters, the board’s rating system: “A” for “work of Andy Warhol,” “B” for “not the work of Andy Warhol,” and “C” for “not able at this time to form an opinion.” Shortly after, Simon was faxed a letter with the verdict: a B. He was floored.
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