Warhol Wars: Legal battle over authenticity

A London-based film-maker is suing the Andy Warhol Foundation for failing to authenticate an alleged self-portrait

One of the most powerful figures in contemporary art and the auction house Christie's have been dragged into a multimillion-pound legal fight over the control of the lucrative market in works by Andy Warhol, one of the most popular, and expensive, artists of the 20th century.

Larry Gagosian, a dealer and gallerist who represents some of the biggest names in contemporary art in his string of galleries in New York, London and Hong Kong, has been subpoenaed to testify in a New York court case between the Andy Warhol Foundation and a London-based film-maker called Joe Simon-Whelan.

Martha Baer, a senior director of Christie's in New York, has also been subpoenaed, along with Barrett White of the New York branch of the influential London contemporary gallery Haunch of Venison, as well as an archivist for the Andy Warhol Museum in Pennsylvania called Matt Wrbican.

Mr Simon-Whelan is suing the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and its subsidiary, the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, for $20m (£13m) after it twice failed to authenticate what he claims is a Warhol self-portrait from 1964, which he intended to sell in 2001.

He has accused the foundation of "engaging in a conspiracy to restrain and monopolise trade in the market for Warhol works" in a fiercely contested case.

The foundation vehemently disputes this. Its lawyer, Nicholas Gravante Jr of the law firm Boies, Schiller and Flexner described the case yesterday as a "sham" and said they would pursue Mr Simon-Whelan for the "rest of his life" if necessary to reclaim the costs of the case. He also claimed in a letter to the court that the painting was stolen from a home in Buckinghamshire before it came into Mr Simon-Whelan's possession.

"Regardless of whether he wins this case he expects to profit from a book he is writing and a film he is making about the case," he said. "When we win this case we will pursue him wherever he is – he can run back to London and hide in a basement. The case has been a sham from day one."

Since Warhol's death in 1987, the Pop artist has risen to become one of the pre-eminent artists of the 20th century, rivalled only by Picasso and Monet in terms of the value of his work. Last November his Eight Elvises sold for a staggering $100m (£60.5m).

The Art Authentication Board has long been the subject of controversy and criticism in the art world as no work of Warhol's can be sold unless it approves it as an original. Those it rejects are stamped on the back with the word "Denied" – leading to claims that the paintings are purposefully ruined. It usually gives no reasons for denying authentication and reserves the right to de-authenticate works it has previously approved.

This has led to claims that the foundation effectively controls the Warhol market. In his complaint, Mr Simon-Whelan alleges that this ensures prices remain high by limiting works available to buy. He argues that his work, which he wanted to sell for $2m, had previously been authenticated and at one point in its history sold by Christie's.

The foundation argues that the portrait of Warhol on a red background is a fake because it is printed and not hand-painted and made on linen, rather than cotton.

Brian Kerr, Mr Simon-Whelan's lawyer, said yesterday that he had taken depositions from Joel Wachs, the president of the foundation, and Barrett White, concerning Mr White's time at Christie's.

"We have agreed with Mr Gagosian and Ms Baer that we do not need to pursue their testimony at this time. We are pleased with what we were able to hear from Barrett White. We are confident that we will be able to prove our claim." He also denied that the work had been stolen.

Christie's said it was unable to comment on the "Andy Warhol matter" and representatives for Mr Gagosian did not respond to enquiries.

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