Is That Warhol Fake? Even His Foundation Isn't Sure
By KELLY CROW
How can you tell if an Andy Warhol silkscreen is the real thing or a fake? Even the Pop master's own art foundation has given up trying to tell the difference.
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts said Wednesday that in coming months it plans to shut down its authentication board—the only independent arbiter of the legitimacy of Warhol works that turn up on the art market.
The six members of the authentication board, which include museum curators from San Francisco and Denver, will issue rulings for its remaining caseload of about 175 possible Warhols before closing up shop for good, said Michael Straus, chairman of the foundation's board.
Mr. Straus said a recent string of costly legal disputes with collectors contesting the board's findings influenced the board's decision to give up its role as the "final word" on the late artist's creative output.
One of the highest-profile disputes involved a London filmmaker, Joe Simon, who sued the board four years ago after it refused to vouch for his purported Warhol "Self-Portrait."
By the time Mr. Simon dropped his suit last November, the artist's foundation had spent more than $7 million defending the board's ruling, with help from major law firms like Boies, Schiller & Flexner.
With the authentication board winding down, the roughly $500,000 a year it spent on travel and research expenses will be reallocated. Mr. Straus said the foundation plans to devote more of its efforts and money to making arts grants. It has already spent more than $206 million on such grants since its founding in 1987, three months after Warhol's death.
"We'd rather our money go to artists, not lawyers," Mr. Straus added.
Beginning Thursday, collectors who unearth a possible Warhol will need to seek out a Warhol scholar of their own, or consult the artist's official record of known works logged in the foundation's archives. Auction houses and Warhol-savvy dealers also can appraise and vouch for the legitimacy of works, but they may have a financial interest in finding them genuine.
Jose Mugrabi, a major dealer and collector who owns at least 800 Warhols, called the board's dissolution "totally irresponsible." He said there are still "hundreds" of Warhols in existence that have yet to be tracked down and authenticated by scholars. He said at least 100 of the Warhols before the board now belong to him.
"I have to sit down," Mr. Mugrabi said when informed of the board's vote. "They have an obligation to finish their job."
Auction-house specialists from Sotheby's and Christie's were more sanguine. Sotheby's expert Tobias Meyer said he will simply resell works that are already logged in the archival records. Brett Gorvy, an expert at Christie's, part of Christie's International PLC, said any fakes that roll onto the marketplace in coming months "will be easy to spot."
In part because high Warhol prices can feed the frenzy for other contemporary artists, collectors and dealers have long paid close attention to his prices. The Pittsburgh-born artist created about 8,000 paintings and sculptures between 1952 and his death in 1987, and they turn up at auction so consistently— about 200 works a year—that they have become a bellwether for the entire $25 billion art market.
Four years ago, a collector paid Christie's a record $71.7 million for a 1963 work, "Green Car Crash." Last year, about $337 million of Warhols changed hands at auction—more than just about any artist aside from Pablo Picasso, whose auction tally for the year topped $385.4 million, according to Artnet, a New York firm that tracks auction sales.
Mr. Simon, the filmmaker with the rejected Warhol, said he "isn't surprised by" the board's dissolution but hasn't decided whether to seek other Warhol scholars to vouch for his silkscreen.