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New documentary challenging the gatekeepers of Warhol’s legacy

Alan Yentob shines a revealing light on the secretive world of the Warhol Authentication Board

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Imagine...Andy Warhol: denied is an important television exposé of a situation first revealed in October 2003 by The Art Newspaper: the secret decision-making by the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board. This is the first time arts TV has taken up a viewer’s case, which it does even-handedly.

The tale begins at an art world bash, where presenter Alan Yentob is collared by Joe Simon, an American living in London, and learns that he bought an early Warhol self-portrait in 1988 for $195,000. In 2001 he hoped to sell it for $2 million, but the sale was scuppered by the board, which was set up six years after he bought his picture. In the board’s opinion, the work is not a genuine Warhol, although it has the Warhol signature stamped on the stretcher, and is certified on the back:“an original painting by Andy Warhol completed by him in 1964. Frederick Hughes.” Mr Hughes was president of the Warhol Foundation, and responsible for authenticating the artist’s work before the board was established.

Authentication is required by major sale rooms: the “Denied” stamp has seeped through to the front, effectively invalidating it. The board gives no reasons for its decisions and, as Mr Yentob tells us: “When you submit a work, the waiver you sign negates any previous authentications, and gives you no right to challenge its verdict in court.” And, “to prevent legal action the board reserves the right to change its opinion about the authenticity of the works at any point in the future.” The board’s procedures go against all recognised art historical practice, according to Richard Dorment, art critic at the UK newspaper Daily Telegraph, leaving no room for debate about attributions.

To New York, to investigate the workings of this most secret of clubs. From a photograph, the board looks like a happy-go-lucky quartet, of whom only Professor Robert Rosenblum has any significant art historical credentials. No-one is available to speak, but the board’s lawyer, Ronald Spencer, agrees to answer Mr Yentob’s queries. How does the board justify its secrecy? “If you come to us for our opinion, we’re not going to provide a roadmap. You can submit any evidence you want,” he replies.

One high-profile victim of this procedure is the dealer Ivan Karp, “the man credited with discovering Warhol”. His tale involves two Warhol self-portraits, silk-screened by students in a college under Warhol’s instruction, one of which Warhol signed. “He confirmed that he thought this portrait was a Warhol production,” Mr Karp says, and sold them on this understanding. The buyers submitted them to the board—who stamped them “denied”. Mr Karp had to refund $30,000. “I resubmitted the paintings and they were again rejected.” A letter from the board ran: “We do not pass on the authentication of signatures, we pass on the making process of the picture.” The paintings were rejected “for having been made under incorrect circumstances”. But“they didn’t stamp the one with the signature,” Mr Karp says.

Ronald Spencer responds: “There is no evidence that Warhol ever showed up at this art school.” He dismisses the testimony of Professor Ray Fleming: “He could have signed it 10 years later...If you sign my baseball cap, what does that tell me about your signature?” Mr Spencer clarifies the board’s guidelines: “We can all agree that if Andy Warhol conceives the idea, then supervises that assistant’s execution, and then approves of that...then that’s a Warhol.” The problem for Mr Simon is that his picture was one of several made off-site, unsupervised, and that it compares unfavourably with Warhol’s versions. Nevertheless, they were “approved” by Warhol.

Mr Yentob meets a number of witnesses who corroborate Warhol’s production practices: Paul Morissey, Sam Green and Richard Ekstrakt. Richard Dorment protests: “The people who were actually there in the 1960s and 1970s are...not being asked what happened. And when they tell, they’re being told, no, it didn’t happen that way. I think it’s one reason why of all the authentication committees I’ve never heard the number of complaints that we’ve heard about the Andy Warhol Authentication Board.” This riveting programme offers no reassurance with the news from New York “that the Authentication Board has appointed two new members. But the policy will remain exactly the same.”

Imagine...Andy Warhol: denied, BBC1, 6/8, 24 January. Presenter/executive producer Alan Yentob. Produced and directed Chris Rodley

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