In the five short years since I started Richard Polsky Art Authentication, I’ve witnessed a number of significant changes in the art market. Perhaps the biggest change has been the continued rise of the art market itself. They say a tree doesn’t grow to the sky, but Contemporary art may be the lone exception. If you own a trophy property, which is defined as a work by a major artist that is the best of the best, there seems to be no limit to what an investor is willing to pay. In 2019, the Ed Ruscha painting, Hurting the Word Radio #2, came to auction. None other than Jeff Bezos, who on any given day is the richest person in the world, bought it at Christie’s. Mr. Bezos paid a record $52.5 million for the privilege. The point is he probably would have spent $100 million if he had to. Why? He simply wanted it.
As far as the art authentication business goes, five years ago, 70% of our business was Andy Warhol, about 20% Jean-Michel Basquiat, and approximately 10% Keith Haring. Currently, our business is about 60% Basquiat, and the rest is divided among Warhol, Haring, Jackson Pollock, Bill Traylor, and Roy Lichtenstein. When a Basquiat painting broke $110 million at auction (in 2017), the rush was on to bring his works to market. We immediately began seeing an inordinate number of forgeries; pastiches of grotesque heads, crowns, and words. Typically, they come with provenances that are almost impossible to prove: “It came from a friend of the artist,” “It came from one of Basquiat’s drug dealers,” or “It was a gift from the artist.”
I’ve discovered that of all the painters we work with, Keith Haring is the most difficult to authenticate, followed by (in descending order of difficulty) Bill Traylor, Jackson Pollock, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. As far as why Keith Haring is the thorniest, it comes down to the fact his work can be disarmingly simple — especially the drawings. Anyone with a steady hand can make a reasonable facsimile. However, what a forger can’t duplicate is Keith Haring’s confidence. The trick, of course, is being able to recognize those works which capture his spirit.
I believe during the next five years we will witness changes to the authentication world where the stakes grow even higher. Buyers will demand tighter provenances — which will put the thousands of regional auction houses, and online auction sites, on notice. In other words, the future of art authentication will always be based on connoisseurship. But a work’s provenance will play an even bigger part, necessitating the buyer getting more involved in researching his purchase.