Last month the Guardian newspaper reported that Nicholas Serota of the Tate Modern had recently declined to buy a self-portrait of Andy Warhol due to questions over the works’ authenticity (Is this a $2m Warhol, or a fake? Art world sees red over self-portraits, The Guardian, Saturday 5th December 2009). The story proves fascinating reading, providing as it does an insight into the convoluted self-regulation and artificial construction of value within the art world. The work in question is one of a set of ten Red Portraits, screen prints taken from an automatic photobooth head and shoulders shot of Warhol’s instantly recognisable visage. It transpires that an unnamed (in the article) shadowy ‘board’ based in New York have taken it upon themselves to pronounce with authority on the authenticity or otherwise of questionable Warhol works. The board, through its president Joel Wachs, claims to exist in order to protect the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most famous, and it has to be said valuable, artists from dubious dealers.
The controversy really kicks in however once we learn that the board itself, and the Warhol Foundation to which it is linked, own a large number of Warhol works, and the claim, led by businessman and art collector David Mearns (who owns one of the ten Red Portraits) and art critic Richard Dorment, is that by denying the authenticity of these works the board and the Foundation increase the value of their own cache of ‘real’ Warhols. To be fair to the board they say they are a charitable organisation funding grants for the visual arts through sales of their Warhols, but this does not detract from my interest in the story.
Through his work Warhol challenges the concept of value with regards the work of art. He purposefully blurs the lines of authenticity by delegating production to employees of his Factory as well as using methods of mechanical reproduction. With regard to the Red Portraits, the story of these is known. They were made from an already existing acetate which Warhol gave to an associate, who then outsourced the production of the screen prints to an outside firm. Warhol is said to have approved the finished works, and they do indeed carry his signature. I find myself agreeing with the critics mentioned in the article who are said to find “the idea of a ‘fake’ or ‘genuine’ Warhol to be almost meaningless.” This is perhaps Warhol’s most important artistic legacy.