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Legal Battle Over Disputed Warhol Portrait Raises Authenticity Issues

New York State Supreme Court Judge Martin Schneier ruled last month that a lawsuit brought by former Andy Warhol assistant Gerard Malanga against artist John Chamber¬lain can move forward.

NEW YORK—New York State Supreme Court Judge Martin Schneier ruled last month that a lawsuit brought by former Andy Warhol assistant Gerard Malanga against artist John Chamberlain can move forward. The dispute centers on silk-screen portraits of Chamberlain that Malanga claims he and two other artists executed, but which Chamberlain allegedly sold as an authentic work by Warhol for several million dollars.

Malanga, an artist, poet and filmmaker, was an assistant to Warhol from 1963 to 1970 and was “widely considered to be Warhol’s right-hand man,” according to the background information included in Schneier’s ruling. Malanga was involved in the creation of many iconic silk-screened paintings at Warhol’s Manhattan studio, the Factory.

The artwork in question, known as 315 Johns, consists of 315 eight-inch-square silk screens on canvas, each depicting Chamberlain’s face. Malanga claims that he and two other artists, Jim Jacobs and the late Irene Harris, created the silk-screen paintings in 1971. The works were executed in Warhol’s signature style, but without the artist’s knowledge or supervision, Malanga claims. “Warhol had no involvement whatsoever in the creation of the canvasses,” his complaint states.

During the mid-1970s the Chamberlain paintings were stored first at Jacobs’s home in Great Barrington, Mass., and then at his New York City loft. In 1977, the paintings were moved to Chamberlain’s Manhattan apartment, “with the understanding that [Chamberlain] would store the work and return it upon demand,” according to the complaint.

Malanga did not give any further thought to the works, the decision says, until he encountered Chamberlain at an art fair in early 2004, where, according to the complaint, Chamberlain told him that he had sold the portraits for $5 million. In late 2005 Malanga sued Chamberlain.

Chamberlain asked the court to dismiss the suit, claiming that the action is barred by a three-year statute of limitations. Chamberlain also claims Warhol created all of the silk-screen portraits that make up 315 Johns and that Warhol had given them to him in exchange for Chamberlain’s artwork, the judgment states. Chamberlain says he had the portraits assembled into one work and that, in 1999, he submitted it to the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board. The board authenticated the work as being by Warhol in June 2000, and Chamberlain allegedly sold the work soon after, according to the court filings. The work is included in the Warhol catalogue raisonné.

To date, Chamberlain has not produced any documentation such as “a bill of sale, the name of the buyer, the shipping information or any other documentation that would be expected from a sale of this magnitude,” Schneier wrote in his decision. In denying Chamberlain’s request for a summary judgment, he rejected the notion that authentication by the Warhol board is “conclusive evidence,” adding that it is not binding on the court. Furthermore, he wrote, “whatever persuasive authority the [Authentication] Board’s decision might ordinarily confer is undercut by the fact that it was made without consideration of the plaintiff’s allegations.”

The decision paved the way for Malanga to file an amended complaint, which he did through his attorney, Peter R. Stern of McLaughlin & Stern, New York, on August 18. According to the complaint, in obtaining the authentication of the Warhol board, Chamberlain “defrauded the Warhol Authentication Board,” and alleges that if it is true that the work was sold to a third party, Chamberlain “has defrauded such purchaser.”

In the event that Chamberlain has not sold the artwork and “continues to have possession or control,” of it, Malanga is asking that the work be returned to him. If the work has been sold, Malanga seeks damages equal to the value of the work, estimated to be “in excess of $250,000.”

Neither Chamberlain nor his attorney responded to requests from ARTnewsletter for comment. Ronald D. Spencer, the lawyer for the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, told ARTnewsletter, “The board is always interested in receiving new and relevant information concerning opinions on authenticity it has rendered.”

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