Saturday, October 23, 2010

Stockholm Syndrome: The Andy Warhol Authentication Board dismisses Brillo Box 'copies'

I'm looking at my fragile copy of the catalogue of the 1968 Andy Warhol exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (left), which included a number of Brillo boxes, made for the exhibition to Warhol's instructions according to the exhibition's curator, the late Pontus Hultén (1924-2006).

Warhol's original series of Brillo boxes were created for his first show at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in New York in 1964.

Now, The Art Newspaper has followed up on investigations conducted in 2004 by the Swedish newspaper Expressen, which revealed that the boxes shown in the 1968 Stockholm exhibition were not wooden Brillo boxes at all, but rather cardboard Brillo boxes sourced from the Brillo factory.

This would not be quite so newsworthy were it not for the fact that Pontus Hultén, the curator of the Stockholm exhibition, went on to sell some of the wooden Brillo boxes that he claimed had been made with Warhol's blessing and to his specifications for the 1968 show (box from the 1968 catalogue, shown below). The Belgian dealer Ronny van de Velde paid Hultén $240,000 for 40 of the boxes in 1994; and London dealer Brian Balfour bought 22 of them for £640,000 in 2004. Christie's later sold ten of them to renowned London dealer Anthony d'Offay for £475,650. The 'provenance' of Christie's boxes was bolstered by letters from Hultén and the Warhol board.

Brillo box from the Stockholm show
But according to The Art Newspaper, the Authentication Board of the Andy Warhol Foundation has now decided to issue its definitive statement on the Brillo boxes and has effectively pronounced the Hultén boxes as fakes (although the Board has been too spineless to use that word). In the absence of documentary evidence that Warhol authorised the production of the Hultén series, the board has classified them as "exhibition-related copies."

Here, then, is final proof, if any were needed, of the absurdity of the Warhol market. The risible and all too-powerful Warhol Authentication Board acknowledges that it can "neither verify nor invalidate any verbal agreement" [between Hultén and Warhol] and yet, because Hultén is no longer around to testify, he is condemned by the Board for having "misrepresented these works and falsified their history." Misrepresentation and falsification. Would lawyers call that fraud or forgery?

But how 'original' are 'original' Warhol works anyway? This is surely the art market minefield of all art market minefields.

As Andy once said: "I tried doing them by hand, but I find it easier to use a screen. This way, I don't have to work on my objects at all. One of my assistants or anyone else, for that matter, can reproduce the design as well as I could." (Warhol, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1968).

The New York City dealer Janice Washburn was among those who attended Warhol's début exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1964 when the Brillo boxes were first shown. She went along with her friend James Harvey, a painter who augmented his artist's income as a freelance packaging designer.

Harvey had been the designer of the original Brillo box and was also a friend of Warhol. Janice Washburn later recalled, "Jim nearly collapsed when we went in to the gallery and saw people actually buying Warhol's identical version. All Jim could do was write it off as part of the madness of life." (Quoted in Laura de Coppet & Alan Jones, The Art Dealers, Potter, New York, 1984, pp69-70)

One can't help wondering how all those collectors (and indeed dealers) must feel, sitting on Warhols that the Stalinist 'Board of Authentication' might at any moment condemn as a "copy" or inauthentic. Aren't those pronouncements really designed to shore up the market value of the Foundation's own Warhol holdings and diminish those held by others?

Brillo pads used to get the grime off stuff. But some of it just won't budge.

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