When he passed away, Andy Warhol left behind the Warhol market, an ecosystem within itself. Sometimes, collectors and speculators in the Warhol market find themselves in dispute with the Andy Warhol Foundation, which has been dedicated to research, and to granting funds to projects that are in keeping with the generous and forward-thinking spirit of Warhol’s work. The latest of these disputes characteristically stinks.
In British Columbia, the Frans Wynans Fine Art gallery is going to court with the Warhol Foundation over the rights to four photographs Warhol took of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. In a suit obtained by Courthouse News Service, Wynans claims that in 1983, it paid Warhol $175,000 to create art from a photo shoot with Gretzky, granting copyright to Warhol, but reserving specific rights to Gretzky and the gallery. Gretzky’s permission was required to “reproduce, restrike, utilize or otherwise exploit the Art,” and Wynans had the exclusive rights to sell it.
The language about the Gretzky paintings and prints is clear, but nowhere in the report are rights over the photographs specifically allotted. Wynans found out about their sale at Christie’s in November 2012, and one could argue that at this point, he’s simply annoyed that they didn’t think about this little detail. “Being fully occupied with the marketing and selling the Paintings and Prints, Mr. Wynans gave no thought to the Photos,” the complaint reads, “of whose continued existence after the Art was produced, he was unaware.”
Just so we have this straight: Wynans knew about the prints, which were obviously made with a photographic stencil, but he was “unaware” of the photographs themselves? And we’re not supposed to find the lawsuit frivolous or greedy?
To keep things in context, it’s worth pointing out that Warhol was the top-selling artist in the world last year — not Picasso, Matisse, or Van Gogh, and certainly not Rembrandt. According to Artnet, Warhol not only outpaced Old Masters in 2012, but also brought in more cash than living artists like Hirst, Emin, and Richter, though they did follow close behind. The compounding speculation this kind of star power attracts, as everyone else tries to get on board, is bound to get dicey as photographs, reproductions, and source materials come into dispute. After all, Warhol was an artist who loved mechanical reproduction, and he didn’t exactly treat his workshop like an airtight vault.
Shamefully, the non-profit Warhol Foundation frequently gets caught in the middle. In a 2007 lawsuit, the collector Joe Simon-Whelan accused the Foundation of intentionally restricting the market by limiting the number of works they authenticated. This included a Warhol portrait he owned, which was a fake, even though he really, really didn’t want it to be. He lost the case. In January 2012, Lou Reed sued the Foundation over the rights to the famous banana painting that decorated the cover of The Velvet Underground’s debut album. Isn’t he great? No, in this case, he isn’t. Last week, the case was dismissed.
In 2011, authentication lawsuits alone became such a burden to the Warhol Foundation that they elected to shut down their authentication board entirely. “It is a matter of priority, and our responsibility to Andy’s mission. Our money should be going to artists, not lawyers,” Joel Wachs told The Art Newspaper. The Warhol Foundation had spent millions of dollars in their defense against Simon-Whelan, but it seems as if in shutting down the authentication board, they have yet to shield themselves entirely. There’s a lot more legal silliness to come.