In the high-stakes art world, a fear of lawsuits is putting a muzzle on authenticators.
“Art is about life and the art world is about money,” Damien Hirst famously said. And with the European Fine Art Foundation estimating $57.3 billion in global art sales last year, his observation has never rung more true. But as art prices soar, ensuring the authenticity of one’s artwork (read: its value) is becoming an increasingly muddled and costly affair.
Four years ago, the Andy Warhol Foundation dissolved its authentication board, the official arbiter holding sway over which works are certified as those of the artist’s and those that are not. Embroiled in a series of lawsuits after rejecting the validity of questionable pieces, Red Self-Portrait (1965) among them, the board decided it could no longer bear the financial toll of continuously defending itself against disgruntled collectors, even though they had signed agreements in advance, binding them to the board’s decisions.
“One year our legal bill ran up $7 million,” says Joel Wachs, the foundation’s director. “The cost to defend them became so great, we got tired of giving money to lawyers. We’d rather be giving it to artists.” So after 16 years and some 6,000 works examined, the Warhol board closed its doors.
Like a giant silk-screen domino, the news set off a chain reaction within the small, elite world of authentication boards. Since then, a number of artists’ estates and foundations—including those representing Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jackson Pollock—have also chosen to disband, unwilling to open themselves up to further legal entanglements.