In a rather showy restructuring of priorities, the Andy Warhol Foundation has announced that they will dissolve their authentication board. The task of deciding the provenance of hundreds of purported works by Warhol that the Foundation can’t get to between now and the end of the year will thus be left to other scholars and independent experts. “We’d rather our money go to artists, not lawyers,” said chairman Michael Straus, who said the foundation couldn’t go on indefinitely fielding lawsuits filed by people who found the board’s conclusions unfair (or just unsatisfying). They’d rather focus their energies on grant-making and other activities with a broad public interest.
Fine by me. I’ve worked for two institutions that benefited from the Warhol Foundation’s work — this blog being one of them. It seems the only reason the Foundation’s decision isn’t objectively good news is that so many brokers had money riding on the board authenticating art works they own as genuine Warhols. Jose Mugrabi, a dealer with at least 100 art works waiting for the board’s stamp of approval, wonders what he will tell his clients if the world’s biggest Warhol arbitrator decides to step out of the authentication game.
Up until now, there have been two reasons I would go to the Warhol Foundation to find out where that poster in my parent’s attic came from. The first is commercial: we’re in the middle of a Warhol bubble, and some folks have decided to ride it. Mugrabi, who describes the board’s decision as “irresponsible,” probably wouldn’t be complaining if he hadn’t put so many eggs in one basket. In 2007, a Warhol silkscreen sold at Christie’s $71.7 million — a hefty amount to pay for any work of art, turned truly absurd when you consider how much Andy Warhol worked to discredit conventional notions of authorship or the idea that a work of art should be as something that only rich people could see and own.
Which brings me to the second reason the authentication board existed: there are a lot of people who make their life’s work out of studying the Warhol legacy. For better or for worse, Andy Warhol is a part of the 20th century canon, and the compilation of a catalogue raisonné for the artist is a noble undertaking. With only a quarter of it finished, the Foundation knows this, which is why they won’t be giving it up as part of their mission.
Starting in 2012, the commercial work of “authenticators” will be separate from the scholarly work of art historians. I doubt that art history will be affected in any significant way when we find out that such-and-such an edition of fifty prints were actually made by a studio assistant and sold for something illegal. Answering these kinds of questions shouldn’t be a major part of the Warhol Foundation’s job.