Authenticating Andy
Kelly Devine Thomas

Seventeen years after Andy Warhol’s death, controversies surrounding
the Warhol Art Authentication Board and the Catalogue raisonné of his
work reflect confusion about his intent, his working methods, and his legacy

Andy Warhol was the most successful and famous American artist of the 20th century. His signature images - the Jackies, Elvises, and Marilyns - are as familiar to us as the Mona Lisa. His pictures sell for millions, and he is represented in virtually every public and private collection of contemporary art in the world. Everybody knows what an “Andy Warhol” looks like.

Or do they? The coeditors of the second volume of The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, published by Phaidon last month, would dispute that statement. Warhol himself, write Neil Printz and Georg Frei, didn’t make it easy. Not only did he “deflect those who would attempt to know his work or to discern his hand in it, he disputed the role of the artist as the author of a work of art.” He made hundreds of virtually identical paintings. He overturned traditional notions of rarity and uniqueness. He even suggested that he didn’t care if people couldn’t see “whether my picture was mine of somebody’s else’s.”

“There are so many Andy Warhols,” says Printz. “Everyone has their own Andy. We wanted to look at the Warhol we can see.”

The catalogue raisonné is an ongoing project of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, a controversial entity since its beginnings in 1987, when Warhol died, leaving artwork and assets worth more than half a billion dollars and a will directing the most of his assets be used to establish a foundation dedicated to the “advancement of visual arts.” The foundation inherited an astounding trove that people fought over - how much was it worth, who would get what, who was in control - throughout much of the 1990s. In the past decade, the foundation has reaped more than $175 million from sales of works left in Warhol’s estate, enabling it to become a powerhouse in the contemporary-art world as a grant giver, a facilitator of scholarship, and an arbiter of authenticity as well as a source of Warhol’s work. It is the foundation’s role as an authenticator that has caused the most contention in recent years and is threatening to pull it into another court battle.

While the dispute concerns money, it also involves confusion about Warhol’s working methods, his intent, and his legacy. The handling of Warhol’s estate, the complex nature of his work, and the volume and value of what he left behind make it very difficult to clarify his oeuvre. “There have been some disgruntled people,” says foundation president Joel Wachs. “But it’s not the job of the authentication board to think about whether people will be upset. It’s the job of the authentication board to protect Warhol’s legacy and owners of his legitimate works.”

The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, which was established by the foundation in 1995, has examined more than 3,000 work submitted to it and has rejected about 10 to 15 percent of them as inauthentic. Decisions by the board - whose members are David Whitney, and independent curator, who was a friend of Warhol’s and worked with him Robert Rosenblum, professor of fine arts, New York university, and curator of 20th-century art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York; Sally Kind-Nero, the foundation’s curator for drawings and photography; and Printz - are unanimous and are protected by a waiver indemnifying the board, the foundation, and the estate, a practice that is not uncommon among authentication committees.

Because the board does not explain its decisions - it says explanations are subject to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or misuse - there is growing frustration in the market over how it arrives at its conclusions. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the board has rejected works previously authenticated by representatives of the foundation and has reversed its own opinions about works it had previously determined to be authentic. “I don’t understand the science of it,” says one New York dealer. “That’s what is unclear.”

The authentication board acts as an arm of the six-volume catalogue raisonné project. Printz, King-Nero, and Frei, who is the director of Thomas Ammann Fine Art in Zurich, have travelled the world to document and compare as many of Warhol’s works as possible. Not all works must be submitted to the board to be included in the catalogue, sources say. A work must be submitted if one of the three-member team considers its authenticity uncertain and wants the whole board to see it.

New York dealer and collector Timothy Baum says he was told a year ago that four Flowers paintings - two of which he owned and two that he had sold - needed to be submitted to the board for inclusion in the catalogue. The paintings, which Baum says were given by the late Henry Geldzahler, Warhol’s friend and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first curator of contemporary art, as a wedding gift to a family friend of the curator’s in the 1960s, were rejected. “The works were not signed, but Warhol didn’t sign all of his works,” says Baum. Since the board does not explain its decisions, Baum doesn’t know why the works were not accepted. “They don’t have to give any reason, and they don’t,” says Baum. “It’s shocking.”

Rainer Crone, author of a catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s paintings published in 1970, estimated that Warhol made more than 900 Flowers paintings in the 1960s. The foundation’s catalogue records a little more than half that number. The authentication board contends that Warhol was “acutely aware of how many works he was making,” but Crone took the opposite view, stating, “Warhol was neither interested in the exact number of paintings produced nor in limiting the edition.”

“There is this perception that Warhol painted more than he did,” says Brett Gorvy, Christie’s codirector of contemporary art. “The catalogue raisonné has shown how few there actually are in some cases. It has had quite a big impact on the market. People had been looking at his works as a serial; now they are seeing them as more unique.”
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