The many forgeries and authentication controversies surrounding Warhol's legacy

Fri Aug 13 2021
A wax sculpture of Andy Warhol.

Andy Warhol is one of the most influential artists of modern times. The frenzy for all things Warhol reflected in blockbuster exhibitions, books, films, and an ever-growing market for his artworks. Unfortunately, Warhol´s fame has also turned his artworks into one of the most frequently faked artworks on the market. To further complicate things, Warhol´s revolutionary working process, which defied the preexistent notion of authorship, has resulted in a large number of authentication controversies and legal battles surrounding his legacy. This article looks at how Warhol's forgers operate and uncovers the most controversial events facing his work. In the last part of this post, we also share how experts distinguish fake from real and how you can discern the difference.

Andy Warhol: one of the most faked artists

Warhol died on February 22, 1987, from complications due to a routine gallbladder surgery, leaving behind thousands of paintings, drawings, prints, and objects and a will which, among other things, stated that a visual art foundation was to be started on his behalf to support visual arts and handle his estate. Shortly after his death, the price of Warhol's work escalated and forgeries started to emerge and, as the internet era arose and different technological breakthroughs populated the world, Warhol´s forgeries multiplied to an unseen level and are found mainly on online sales, but also in established art galleries and auction houses around the world.

Next to his mega-star status and the relentless demand for his work, Warhol´s works are the target of art forgers and the subject of many art authentication controversies due to the artist's approach to art making. Importantly, Warhol was one of the first artists to grant more importance to the idea behind the artwork over the manual labor associated with its making. As detailed by The Guardian, Warhol famously christened his studio The Factory and had a great number of assistants that contributed to his works which were produced at a frantic pace. As a result, some experts only consider the works that Warhol actually touched with his hands to be authentic, while others deem authentic works which were overseen or commissioned by the artist.

As explained by The New York Times, Warhol's prints are the most frequently forged body of works followed by his paintings and drawings. The latter is due, in part, to Warhol's use of mechanical photo-silkscreen technique previously used for commercial purposes, reported Artnet News. And, it also relates to the fact that prints are relatively easy to create and hard to detect. Last but not least, prints normally fall into a more affordable price range and are a popular item amongst new collectors looking to own an artwork. As proof of the crucial role that Warhol's prints have had within the art market, a 2019 Andy Warhol Market Report issued by Revolver Gallery stated that Warhol's prints average among both the highest sales prices and the highest yearly transaction volume. According to the report, “demand for his work (prints) is transparent: It is based on the continuing popularity of his work and the understanding that his art is a blue-chip commodity.” While Warhol's prints are a preferred item among art forgers, other artists´ prints, like the ones by Lichtenstein, Picasso, and Klee, are also forged daily.

A collection of Mao Andy Warhol prints.

Ok, but which are the most commonly faked Andy Warhol works? According to Richard Polsky, a Warhol expert and art authenticator, the most sought after and, hence, forged prints among the 448 editioned prints the artist oversaw (which were printed many times) are the ones from the “Marilyn” series with the originals from this series selling for as much as $300,000. Likewise, prints from other series such as the “Flowers,” “Maos,” “Endangered Species,” and “Myths” emerge every once in a while in the art market. To get a glimpse of how many fake Warhol prints are out there, Susan Sheehan, a New York art dealer specializing in postwar American prints once said to The New York Times, “I’ve been in the business for 30 years and some people say there are more fake Warhols than real ones,” Now, regarding Warhol´s paintings, which fall into a much higher price range, the “Flowers”, “Little Electric Chairs”, “Jackies”, “Mick Jaggers”, and “Fright Wig” self-portraits series are the preferred choices of the art forgers, while Warhol´s pre-pop period drawings reproducing mainly images from the “Shoes”, “Cats” and “Mickey Mouse” series are also targeted.

Importantly, while many Warhol fakes go unnoticed and pop up at diverse internet sites from time to time, some forgers have been caught. For example, in July 2020, Artnews reported that a California man was sentenced to five years for attempting to sell over $6 million worth of forged paintings he claimed were by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring, among others. Likewise, Reuters disclosed that last April Brian Walshe, 46, pleaded guilty for having committed art fraud. It all started in 2011 when Walshe visited a former Carnegie Mellon University classmate and his family in South Korea and offered to sell some of their art, including two authentic Warhol paintings from his "Shadow Series" (a series of 109 abstract paintings which the artist developed later on in his career). Walshe then paid someone to create forgeries of the paintings selling them for $80,000 and $145,000 USD and also sold the real works without passing the money to the paintings´ rightful owners.

As we have shared, next to the many forgeries surrounding Warhol's legacy, his oeuvre has always been attached to art authentication controversies and millionaire legal battles depicted below.

Authentication authorities for Warhol's work and long-lasting controversies

For almost 20 years, the Andy Warhol Foundation, established after the artist´s death, had an Authentication Board that was considered to be the main authority of Warhol's works. As reported by The Financial Review, between 1995 and 2011, the Warhol Foundation had its board examine around 6000 purported Warhol's which were classified as “A” (authentic), “B” (inauthentic), or “C” (the board was unable to render an opinion). During this time, only the works that were backed up by the Authentication Board made it to the mainstream market.

However, the many controversies and legal battles facing the board led to its dissolution in 2012. While some backed up the Foundation´s decisions, as Artlystexplained, many considered their opinions to be biased given that the Andy Warhol Foundation was also the owner of Warhol's estate and frequently sold Warhol's to obtain funds for their operations. It is important to say, that Warhol´s board was not the only one to face legal battles since, as mentioned in a previous article dealing with COAs, foundations representing the estates of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alexander Calder, Keith Haring, Lee Krasner, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Isamu Noguchi, Picasso, have also dissolved their authentication boards due to fears of litigations.

As a brief example of one of the controversies, the Warhol Authentication Board once decided to dee-authenticate a 1964 series of ten Warhol Red Self Portraits that for years were considered to be authentic and had a paper trail of provenance. Additionally, in 2010, the board decided to downgrade more than 100 wooden Brillo boxes as “copies”, as opposed to originals, which Pontus Hulten, founding director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, said to have made with Warhol’s express authorization.

Nowadays, even if the foundation no longer authenticates Warhol's artworks and has asked Christie's to handle the sales of Warhol's estate, at least until a few years ago, the board was also connected to the multi-volume catalogue raisonnée of the artist´s many works which is used by many art dealers, collectors, and auction houses as a trusted source for verifying the authenticity of Warhol's oeuvre.

Now, after the dissolution of the Authentication Board, other experts soon created authentication firms specializing in Warhol's works. One of the most renowned ones is Richard Polsky Art Authentication, founded in 2012 by art dealer Richard Polsky to authenticate the work of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Bill Traylor. While Polsky´s opinion is not always the final word on whether a Warhol is fake or real, he is certainly a respected and mediatic character within the art world with more than 40 years of experience. Next to his authenticating services, Polsky has also created the RPAA Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné Addendum, which includes genuine paintings that, for various reasons, were not included in the official Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné published by The Andy Warhol Foundation.

As with many other artists, here we have two conflicting catalogue raisonnés and thus two different authenticating opinions that complicate matters for buyers and sellers who need to decide who to trust. More often than not, conflicting artworks are left outside the mainstream market and, if they do sell, their prices are drastically affected by the conflict.

Now, when dealing with such a famous artist as Warhol, next to the catalogue raisonné and authentication authorities, law firms and consultants are hired to protect the interests of the artist´s estate. For example, within the US, the Artists Rights Society protects Warhol´s intellectual property and, as part of their service, scans the internet for the many fake Warhol´s that pop up on different websites. However, even after being flagged, fakes keep emerging. As Adrienne R. Fields, head of the legal department of the Artists Rights Society shared with The New York Times, “It’s an uphill battle… one fake can be shown on many websites, but you don’t know who the provider is. Prices range from $10 to tens of thousands of dollars.” Some vendors like eBay, Etsy, and Amazon have said they are trying to enforce more security measures to avoid these issues, however, there is still a long road ahead.

How experts distinguish a fake from a real Warhol

Over the years experts have shared their opinions on what are the most important features that separate a real Warhol from a fake. However, as we have seen, even the most seasoned specialists have differing opinions on authorship, so nothing is written in stone. Nonetheless, below we have compiled a list of the main traits that one should check before buying a Warhol claimed to be an original artwork.

First of all, a New York Times article explained that, when dealing with prints, one should look at the color and size of the paper, the quality and condition of the print, the ink used, any markings or stamps, and the date and edition of the print. Likewise, Richard Polsky shared in an Artnet News editorial one must look for the human touch in his prints given Warhol intentionally varied the amount of ink he squeezed through the silkscreen, which resulted in one-of-a-kind images. Even the most tenacious attempts to protect a screenprint cannot prevent a signature from fading, so if the signature is too crisp-looking, it could mean it is a forgery. Often fakes come with phony looking certificates of authenticity or provenance documents that need to be double-checked. If something does not add up, then it is probably a fake.

Regardless of the medium, an important feature of Warhol's oeuvre is the signature, given how he signed (or stamped) his work changed over the years and also varied within the same series of works. For example, depending on the time in which a print was created, Warhol’s signature varied from cursive and print to initials and stamps. In the Art Signature Dictionary, one can find some examples of Warhol's many signatures.

Importantly, Andy Warhol´s catalogue raisonnés are an important source to review. For paintings and prints, which are the most popular items among collectors, one can consult the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné for Paintings and Sculpture 1961–1978 (the publication is ongoing and will eventually include all work through 1987) and the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné for Prints 1962–1987.

Last but not least, the most obvious yet important factor is knowing who you are buying from. Buying a Warhol from eBay or unknown online auction sites is not recommended. We all want to find a great bargain, but when dealing with Andy Warhol's artworks there are few if any bargain prices (usually real prints are sold for $10,000 USD or much more at auctions), so if you come across one for cheap keep scrolling down.