While many people still marvel at the consecration of stencil-coloured photographs of tinned food and movie stars as high art, Warhol's work has been known to attract vast prices - Shot Red Marilyn, a screenprint through which a bullet passed while it was still in his studio, sold for dollars 4.7m ( pounds 3.25m) at Christie's in 1989. The estate is clearly worth a mint but its precise valuation has been bitterly disputed. The drama has kept the New York art world riveted - and it's not over yet.
It is a comedy of errors starring two extraordinarily flamboyant characters, Fred Hughes - Warhol's closest friend and business manager who was appointed executor of the estate under the artist's will - and Ed Hayes, the lawyer Hughes hired to help him look after the estate on the very day Warhol died. Hughes foresaw the immense complexity of the inheritance. They started as friends but have ended up enemies, pitted against each other in a legal dispute over Hayes's fee. His contract says he is entitled to 2 per cent of the estate's value, a huge sum usually granted only to an executor of an estate, not a legal adviser. But Hayes is pressing hard to enforce his contract and has fought fiercely, and successfully, over the exact valuation of the estate.
Hughes, 48, is the son of a Houston furniture salesman and, like, Warhol - the son of an immigrant miner - has had a lifelong obsession with the glamour of fame. Adopting the pinstripe image of an old-world English gentleman, he became a perfect foil to silver-wigged Andy. Today, confined to a wheelchair by advancing multiple sclerosis which renders his speech and movement difficult, he continues to drop the names of dukes and pop stars indiscriminately, bravely keeping up his old, bizarre facade.
Seven years after Warhol's death, Hughes - who met him while working as an art consultant to millionaire collectors from Texas in the 1960s - is still deeply involved with the artist's work. He flew into Pittsburgh for the opening of the new Andy Warhol Museum in May and spent an afternoon stretched out on the sofa of his hotel suite, directing his attorney and his male nurse on how to redecorate for an all-night party. He was wearing leopard-skin patterned towelling breeches, red socks, and a perfectly tailored grey flannel jacket when I stopped by for a drink.
Ed Hayes, 46, once the South Bronx homicide prosecutor, is acknowledged to have been the model for Tommy Killian, the chippy and determined lawyer in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks - 'I've kept my New York accent, though I admit it's an affectation,' he says. He talks to the press with a volubility and passion that would be unthinkable in a British lawyer caught at the centre of a high-profile action. Dressed in a windcheater and jeans he entertained me to a two- hour monologue while he clipped his New York back garden into shape. As he bobbed up and down among the flowerpots, he explained that he was fighting the valuation of the estate for the public's benefit - to increase the level of grants the Warhol Foundation (a charitable trust that was set up under the terms of the artist's will) is required to disburse. As a charity, the Foundation has to spend at least 5 per cent of its total capitalisation every year.
Hayes has managed to charm everyone. He's talked the press round to his side. Even Hughes, with whom he's now fighting in court, told me: 'I like Mr Hayes. It's just a pity he's such a push-aheader. I gave him six million bucks - there's such a thing as greed, isn't there?' It was Hughes who signed the contract granting Hayes 2 per cent of the value of the estate in return for his legal services - the contract which is at the centre of the whole dispute.
In his will Warhol left his two brothers and Fred Hughes dollars 250,000 each and directed that the rest of his estate be converted into a foundation to benefit the visual arts. He did not specify what it should do, but the will implied that his assets, including the art work, should be sold off and the proceeds applied to encouraging art and artists in whatever way the Foundation's board thought best.
Hughes was named as executor of the estate; trustees of the Foundation were named as Hughes, Andy's brother John Warhola, and an old friend called Vincent Fremont. Fremont had managed Andy's studio and helped Hughes organise sales of his work. The disposition was not generous to Andy's family but, as things turned out, his two brothers, as next of kin, have also shared a dollars 7m out-of-court settlement of the suit for negligence which the estate brought against the New York Hospital. Andy went in for an ordinary gallbladder operation - he should not have died.
In 1988, as MS began seriously to affect Hughes's operational capacity, he decided that it was necessary to hire a professional administrator to run the newly established Warhol Foundation on a day-to-day basis. He settled on Arch Gillies, 59, who had previously run a Whitney family foundation and other 'not for profit' organisations outside the art field - what we would loosely call charities in Britain. Gillies is a tall, grey- haired man with old-fashioned manners who has spent his life as a salaried official. He and Hughes belong to different cultures - within weeks the brilliant freewheeler and the man who knew how to run an office were at loggerheads. 'That arch philistine,' Fred growled at me from his wheelchair. 'That not-for- profit profiteer.'
So far Gillies is winning the battle for power over Andy's fortune. In his first year of operation he encouraged the board that governs the Foundation to increase its membership from three to five and joined the board himself by persuading Fremont to resign in his favour.
One of the first moves Gillies made when he arrived in 1990 was to point out that an independent valuation of the estate, at the date it was formally passed over to the Foundation, was required for tax purposes. It was this valuation which was to determine both Hughes's and Hayes's remuneration. Hughes, as executor, hired Christie's to make an appraisal at the formal dates of transfer in February and May 1991 - somewhere near the bottom of the art market slump.
Producing unit values for every art work in an estate of this size and complexity was a massive undertaking. Christie's developed a computer model of the value of the art work, based on auction results of Warhol sales going back 10 years. They analysed alternative scenarios, varying the number of years over which the entire collection could be sold (five, 10 and 25 years), the annual rate of appreciation/depreciation and the costs of holding the art, such as insurance and storage, and came up with an item by item valuation. Finally, they had to assess how much prices were likely to be depressed by the sheer volume of material on offer; this calculation is known as a 'blockage discount', and Christie's came up with a figure of 60 per cent. Only after this elaborate number- crunching was Christie's able to arrive at a figure of dollars 213.7m for the total value of the estate.
It was this valuation that has caused the trouble. Initially both Hughes and Hayes disputed it - both their fees depended on it. The most contentious feature was the application of the 'blockage discount'. Hayes argued that its application was inappropriate since the foundation's business strategy envisages spreading sales over many years.
From mid-1992 to mid-1993, lawyers representing Hayes, Hughes and the Foundation attempted to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. Initially Hughes and Hayes lined up together against the Foundation. Then, in a dramatic move in July 1993, Hughes reached a settlement with the Foundation and agreed to accept Christie's valuation. In return the Foundation dropped a dispute over Hughes's ownership of a significant group of Warhol art works; Hughes also received an undertaking from the Foundation that it would not take legal action against him over alleged mismanagement of the estate. Six days before this agreement was signed, Hayes was fired.
Newly aligned, everyone finally gathered last November in a wood- panelled courtroom presided over by Judge Eve Preminger, niece of the movie mogul Otto Preminger. The first task of the Surrogate Court, which deals with disputes over probate and charities, was the proper evaluation of Warhol's estate; once that was determined, the court could go on to assess whether Hayes deserved his 2 per cent or not. Lawyers represented four separate parties to the dispute - Hayes versus the estate, the Foundation and the New York Attorney General's Charities Bureau (who like the Charities Commission here represent the public interest in such cases). The latter had decided that a legal fee equivalent to 2 per cent of the value of the estate was excessive and thus against the public interest.
The press turned out in strength while the authors of two forthcoming books on the trial scribbled notes indefatigably - Hayes's old friend, the writer Tom Wolfe, and freelance journalist Paul Alexander. As is not unusual in open trial, factual argument rapidly became obscured by theatre. Hayes was the Laurence Olivier of the courtroom while Arch Gillies and Christie's 20th-century art expert, Martha Baer, proved to be amateurs who would be an embarrassment to a parish hall pantomime. The Foundation's lawyer, Beth Jacob, with her soft voice and rambling line in questioning, wasn't much more impressive.
Preminger's judgement, delivered on 14 April, demonstrated that the witnesses she heard in her courtroom provided a wildly distorted vision of how the art market works. She censured Christie's for not having inquired from museum experts about how important Warhol should be considered as an artist - apparently unaware that good auction experts are as knowledgeable as curators about art history and much more knowledgeable about how reputation can be translated into financial value. She also suggested that Christie's was wrong not to have taken into account overseas sales, where they would have had no means of checking the condition of the art work in question or the honesty of the participants.
Judge Preminger went on to censure the over-intimate relationship between Christie's and the Foundation; according to evidence presented in court, the auctioneers had been pressing the Foundation for an exclusive sales agreement while supposedly conducting an arm's-length appraisal. Preminger concluded that the evidence did not 'rise to collusion' but implied that it was a close-run thing. She disputed the size of Christie's 'blockage discount' and decided that the auctioneers had fundamentally underestimated the value of Warhol's 19,879 black and white photographs of his friends. Finally, she came up with her own estimation of the estate's value - which fell roughly mid- way between Hayes's and Christie's figures, at dollars 509.6m.
Her opinion was only translated into a formal court order two weeks ago - against which the other parties can now appeal. The Foundation and the Attorney General are both considering such action but may conclude that it would be more appropriate to appeal after the second part of the trial, which will determine the fair level of Hayes's fees. Judge Preminger has stated that she intends to work from written submissions only, unless the parties convince her before 1 August that live testimony is necessary. Massive new submissions will be required, so she is not likely to pass judgement before October.
Meanwhile, Hayes has filed suit against Hughes - hoping to get money out of him personally if Preminger does not order the estate to pay up. The Attorney General, as the legal protector of charitable funds, has requested an investigation of the allegations of malpractice made against the Foundation during the first trial - namely, whether the Foundation colluded with Christie's to purposely undervalue the estate.
Both Hayes and Hughes would like to settle the issue out of court before the second part of the trial but the Foundation seems determined to fight to the last ditch. If the public does get cheated of a second piece of theatre, however, they will be compensated by full accounts of all the riveting backstage manoeuvres in Tom Wolfe and Paul Alexander's forthcoming books.-