A Warhol, a wild back story, and the price of authenticity

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Andy Warhol once gave a silkscreen portrait of Marilyn Monroe to a sceptical friend. Keep it safe in a closet, said Warhol: “One day it will be worth a million dollars.” Perhaps he undersold himself, given the price recently reached by another of Warhol’s Marilyn silkscreens. “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” is now the most expensive work of 20th-century art, having reached $195mn at an auction in New York.

The back-story of “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” is as striking as its price. In 1964, Dorothy Podber, an artist and provocateur, came to Warhol’s studio, The Factory, pulled out a gun and fired through several of the portraits. Four years later, Warhol himself was shot and nearly killed in The Factory, which can only have added to the mystique of bullet-scarred pictures.

The portrait deserves the cliché “iconic”, but there is a much more obscure portrait that has a claim to being Warhol’s most interesting and definitive work. May I offer for your consideration “Che”, which was based on a 1967 newspaper photograph of Che Guevara’s corpse. It is in most ways a classic Warhol portrait, made using his instantly recognisable silkscreen method and exploring his usual themes of fame, death and mass production. What makes “Che” so interesting? For some time after it was created, Warhol had no idea that the picture existed.

Warhol loved to play with ideas of originality and authorship. His images of Marilyn Monroe were based on a publicity photograph taken by Eugene Kornman, converted by technicians into acetates and screens. Warhol’s assistant, Gerard Malanga, would typically place the screen and apply the Liquitex paints. Some of Warhol’s works are even “signed” using a rubber stamp of his signature. In principle, the entire process, from photograph to signature, could take place without Warhol ever touching the work. Evidently that was part of Warhol’s point.

“Why don’t you ask my assistant Gerry Malanga some questions?” he would tease journalists during interviews. “He did a lot of my paintings.”

It took a young man in love to bring this view of authorship to its logical conclusion. In the summer of 1967, Malanga left Warhol’s studio in New York with a one-way ticket to Rome. (The tale is delightfully told in Alice Sherwood’s new book Authenticity.)

Malanga was infatuated with an Italian muse, but Warhol had offered to send money if Malanga needed a ticket home. Yet when Malanga asked for the promised funds, Warhol did not reply. Malanga then decided he might as well make a Warhol-style silkscreen print of the Che photograph — a large one on canvas, and some smaller prints on paper, too.

Malanga wrote again to Warhol noting that, unless he heard otherwise, he would assume Andy was fine with this. In a follow-up, he noted that Warhol surely wouldn’t object to the pictures being sold as “Andy Warhols”.

Warhol did not reply, and before long the Che portraits were being exhibited at a commercial gallery in Rome, people were starting to suspect the truth, and Malanga was being threatened with a long prison sentence for forgery.

Malanga’s next communication was by telegram. He pleaded with Warhol to intervene: “I WILL BE IN AN ITALIAN MUNICIPAL PRISON WITHOUT BAIL . . . PLEASE HELP ME! PLEASE HELP ME!”

Finally, Warhol responded. “CHE GUEVARAS ARE ORIGINALS,” he wrote. “HOWEVER MALANGA NOT AUTHORISED TO SELL CONTACT ME BY LETTER FOR ADJUSTMENTS ANDY WARHOL.”

Alice Sherwood claims this is “a significant moment in the history of art and authenticity”. I agree. Malanga’s paintings were made in the same way as many of Warhol’s most famous works, and by the same person: Gerard Malanga. The circumstances of their production suggest that they are not really Warhol paintings, yet Warhol declared they were — with a single telegram, not only turning counterfeits into the real thing, but taking ownership of them, too.

Has Sherwood described here an act of forgery? False advertising? Theft by Malanga of Warhol’s brand? Theft by Warhol of Malanga’s pictures? Conceptual art of the highest order? I shall leave that one to the philosophers — and as the Che canvas was later destroyed, the art market will not be able to express an opinion.

From an economist’s perspective, it might seem strange that Warhol’s pictures are so highly prized, given that he made so many of them. But he seems to have anticipated a very 21st-century approach to products, such as digital goods, which are cheap or free to copy: use the ubiquity of the copies as a way to build demand for a premium version.

There are the limited-edition running shoes, the signed first editions of Harry Potter and, of course, there’s the digital artist Beeple’s work “Everydays: The First 5000 Days”, which is free to anyone with an internet connection but fetched $69.3mn for an identical image accompanied by a cryptographic token asserting uniqueness. Beeple, like Malanga, seems to have out-Warholed Warhol. But since Warhol himself once said “Good business is the best art”, he would surely have approved.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 20 May 2022.

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