Make It Real (Or Just Forget About It)

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We’re having a big week in the art attribution field. First there was the Italian conservator who decided that a canvas she’s been examining, and which has long been considered a copy of a Caravaggio, is the real thing.

Then there was the mysterious canvas sold at auction last week in Leicestershire, England. At the time it was represented as an 18th century portrait of a man by an anonymous artist and offered at the anybody-can-afford-this estimate of $300 to $400. The auctioneers should have known something was different about this lot when inexplicably fierce bidding pushed the final price to $410,000, a sum that reportedly left the astonished seller very happy. But maybe not for long. This week the British papers report that the canvas may actually be a Titian, something those competing bidders obviously knew. Possible market value: $10 million.

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Portrait of a Man (detail), Attribution pending

But the best story comes out of the U.S., where a London-based film maker has filed suit in a New York court against the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. That’s the organization that, among other things, directs people who think they own a Warhol to the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, which in turn examines would be Warhols to determine whether they’re “real” Warhols, the kind you can sell for real Warhol prices. The film maker, Joe Simon-Whelan, has been at war with the Board for years after they twice rejected a purported 1964 Warhol self-portrait that Simon-Whelan bought in 1989 for $195,000.

Simon-Whelan accuses the Board of acting fraudulently to keep the pool of authenticated Warhols artificially small, which would keep prices high for the recognized Warhols, many of which the Foundation owns and sometimes sells. Well, keeping the pool of an artist’s work smaller than it might otherwise be is the inevitable byproduct of any authentication board’s work. There are a lot fewer acknowledged Rembrandts in the world today then there were before the Rembrandt Research Project started combing through his output 39 years ago.

So the main hurdle for Simon-Whelan will be to prove that the Board has acted “fraudulently.” At the very least, if the court decides that his claim has enough substance to bring the suit to trial, it will be interesting to learn more about just how the Board authenticates work by an artist whose whole philosophy revolved around mass production of imagery and the elimination of the artist’s unique touch. Is a Warhol silk screen less authentic if he went to the bathroom and left Gerard Malanga to pull the page? What if he didn’t even show up at the Factory that day? As Andy himself once said: “If someone faked my art, I couldn’t identify it.”

I can’t wait til they form The Damien Hirst Authentication Board.

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