On February 19th, 1987, my San Francisco gallery, Acme Art, opened what would prove to be Andy Warhol’s last exhibition in his lifetime. Only three months prior to that, I met Warhol and his esteemed business manager Fred Hughes — from whom I purchased a 20” x 16” Dollar Sign painting for the quaint sum of $4,500.
I tried to persuade Warhol to attend the opening. But Fred Hughes made it clear that it wouldn’t happen unless I could guarantee two portrait commissions totaling $50,000. As Hughes put it, “You’re asking Andy to give up three days of his life — one day to fly to San Francisco, a second day to come to your opening, and a third day to fly back to New York.” Alas, I was unable to produce a couple of portrait clients.
Years later, the art market would discover that Warhol’s portraits were his greatest source of revenue. Andy would take Polaroids of his subject, select his favorite image, and paint four canvases in different color combinations. When your portrait was completed, you would be invited to the studio to make your selection. Inevitably, because of their consistent high quality, you had a hard time making up your mind. That’s when you would be discretely told you could have the other three canvases for only $5,000 each — for a total of $40,000. More often than not, the sitter took the deal.
Our Warhol exhibition drew a lot of attention, but few sales. Collectors scrambled to figure out whether his work would go up or down in value. Harry Anderson (of the Anderson Collection at Stanford) attended the show, paused in front of a medium-size Mao painting, and asked the price. When I quoted him $25,000, he shook his head and replied, “Nice painting, but that’s an awful lot of money for it.” The rest is history.
The Genius of Warhol
Andy Warhol’s genius was his appropriation of a commercial technique — photosilkscreening — to create fine art. His 1960s paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elvis Presley anticipated America’s celebrity culture. His Campbell’s Soup Cans and Brillo Boxes chronicled our obsession with consumerism. And his Death and Disaster series reflected, with numbing repetition, the growing violence of the decade. In 1968, after he was shot and almost died, his work began to lose its edge. But Warhol continued to produce significant paintings into the 1980s. His final decade yielded the Dollar Signs, the great “Fright Wig” Self-Portraits, and the Last Suppers based on da Vinci’s iconic painting.
Although the art market has been enthralled by Warhol proteges Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, it’s important to remember that Warhol was the first artist to function largely as an art director, authorizing others to collaborate in the creation of his work. A genuine Andy Warhol can be painted by him, supervised by him, or authorized by him. But the most important factor in determining authenticity is Warhol’s intent.
The Warhol Market and Authenticity
The Warhol market itself is filled with a fair number of fakes and forgeries. There are paintings illustrated in the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné that are not genuine. There are also a slew of authentic Warhols that should have been included, but weren’t for various political reasons. With the closing of the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board (in 2012), Richard Polsky Art Authentication stepped in to provide Warhol owners with a viable process for determining the authenticity of their paintings. Our basis for validating his work includes examining how an image compares to an existing series, when it was done, how it was made, and whether its provenance is logical. But at the end of the day, our decision is based on Richard Polsky’s forty years (and counting) of immersion in Warhol’s work and the contemporary art world.
Warhol Fakes and Forgeries
Given the nature of the photosilkscreen process, it is a relatively simple matter for a skilled artist to make his “own” Warhol. In most cases, artists who produce these works are honest about their intentions, and sign their name to the back of the canvas. Unfortunately, over the last five years, we have examined a slew of Warhol paintings which were intentional forgeries. Specifically, works from the series: Flowers, Little Electric Chairs, Jackies, Mick Jaggers, “Fright Wig” Self-Portraits, and others. In reference to Andy Warhol’s prints, the biggest problems we have encountered are with the serigraphs from the Marilyn series — Warhol’s most sought-after graphics. These include examples of all ten images in the portfolio — which sold for only $500 when they were released in 1967.