The mystery of Stockholm’s fake Warhols

The recent revelation that some 100 artworks long believed to be Andy Warhol originals are probably fakes has raised a slew of questions in the art world, notably about the work of experts, but inquiries into the affair have so far met a wall of silence.

The mystery of Stockholm's fake Warhols

The key person in the tale – who reportedly ordered the fakes to be made in 1990, three years after Warhol’s death in 1987 – died in 2006. He was Pontus Hulten, an internationally renowned art expert and the former head of the Pompidou Centre’s modern art museum in Paris and Stockholm’s modern art museum Moderna Museet.

Neither the Andy Warhol Foundation, nor the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board would agree to comment on the case. Two auction houses also declined to give their views on the controversy.

The works in question are Brillo boxes, pieces inspired by the real cardboard packaging of Brillo soap pads from the United States. They sell for up to $100,000 dollars.

Swedish daily Expressen broke the story in mid-2007 after months of research.

Moderna Museet then confirmed in November that more than 100 copies were made in 1990, and said it planned to withdraw its six Brillo boxes that were part of that batch.

The copies were reportedly made for an exhibition in Saint Petersburg.

People questioned by AFP were cautious not to smear Hulten’s stellar reputation, but the revelation casts serious doubts over his actions.

How could he have sold Brillo boxes which he claimed were originals from 1968 while others say they were made after Warhol’s death? Why did he say they were made in Sweden and displayed as part of a 1968 Warhol exhibition at Moderna Museet, when several sources insist that that is untrue?

In 1994, Hulten sold 40 Brillo boxes to an art collector in Antwerp, Ronny van de Velde.

In a certificate of sale, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, he wrote:

“These ‘Brillo Boxes’ were produced in Stockholm in 1968, according to Andy Warhol’s instructions. These ‘Brillo Boxes’ were included in the exhibition ‘Andy Warhol’ at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, February-March 1968.”

“I can’t confirm that. He remembers incorrectly,” said Olle Granath, the permanent secretary of the Swedish royal academy of fine arts and Hulten’s assistant during the 1968 exhibition.

“Pontus had grown very old” by then, he suggested.

Expressen journalist Mikael Ölander added: “There’s not one document proving that the 100 Brillo boxes were made for the exhibition” in Stockholm in 1968.

It is however certain that when Hulten had the boxes made in 1990, it was not his intention to dupe the world. It was a widely known fact that they were being made to be part of an exhibition.

“It is clear that they were not made to pretend to be originals, but were made as part of the scenography for an exhibition,” Granath said.

Another Expressen journalist, Christian Holmen, said “it was no secret” when they were made.

So why did Hulten say they were from 1968?

“I wish Pontus Hulten was still alive so he could provide us with an explanation,” said the current curator of Moderna Museet, Lars Nittve.

The affair also casts a shadow over the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, which, according to Expressen, issued authenticity certificates for many of the copies.

According to Granath, many of Warhol’s authentic works were in fact not made by the artist himself.

“I’m glad I’m not a member of a committee that authenticates Andy Warhol’s works … It was always someone else who made his artworks,” he said.

The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board did not respond to AFP’s requestsfor an interview.

According to the board’s lawyer, Ronald Spencer, “the board is looking into this issue … and I expect them to write to existing owners shortly,” he said, refusing to disclose the contents of the letters.

In April, a Brillo box was sold at Christie’s auction house for £66,000 pounds ($131,000).

The text describing the artwork in the catalogue said the piece was made in 1968 and that its previous owner was Pontus Hulten.

Was it a copy made in 1990? The auction house had no comment, and its spokesman Matthew Paton stressed that Christie’s sells only pieces authenticated by the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board.

Sotheby’s auction house also declined to comment.

“Despite the statute of limitations, both auction houses are concerned by claims, they’re concerned for their reputation,” said American lawyer Peter R.Stern, who specialises in art cases and serves as chairman of the board for the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts organisation.

The recent revelation was very serious, Stern said, especially for the board.

However, he noted that the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, which he qualified as “one of the most controversial art boards in the world”, did not risk any legal proceedings if it was found to have authenticated fakes, as it was protected by special legal clauses.

As for the consequences for Warhol’s reputation, Stern said there was little risk there either.

“The interest in his artwork is so substantial. It just means that buyers have to be more careful. I really don’t think it will have an impact on Warhol’s reputation or on the Warhol market.”