• Investigations

    The Brillo-Box Scandal

    The discovery that a respected curator produced a set of Andy Warhol Brillo boxes after the artist’s death, passing them off as originals, has created a quandary for dealers, collectors, and scholars—including the experts in charge of authenticating the artist’s work.

    Six of the boxes made in 1990 were on view at the Moderna Museet. The museum said they would be "struck from the collection."

    Six of the boxes made in 1990 were on view at the Moderna Museet. The museum said they would be "struck from the collection."

    MODERNA MUSEET, STOCKHOLM

    In black-and-white film footage from a 1964 interview, Andy Warhol stands in front of two of his stacked-box sculptures, speaking to a reporter. The boxes in the pile on the left feature the Kellogg’s logo. On the right is an eye-catching stack of Brillo boxes printed with slogans such as “3¢ OFF PACK” and “Shine-O-matic Detergent.”

    As Warhol responds to the journalist’s questions in his faux-naif manner, dealer Ivan Karp stands beside him, grinning as though he and the artist were sharing an inside joke. Karp, then the assistant director of the Leo Castelli Gallery, helped Warhol get his first show, at the Stable Gallery in 1964.

    “Andy,” says the interviewer, “a Canadian government spokesman said that your art could not be described as original sculpture. Would you agree with that?”

    “Uhhh, yes,” Warhol says.

    “Why do you agree?” asks the woman.

    “Well, because it’s not original,” responds Warhol.

    Of course Warhol’s sculptures are original in the sense that he conceived them and had a hand in their execution, although he had considerable help from the studio assistants and other insiders he relied on to produce his prodigious output of paintings, prints, and sculptures. Not only did Warhol toy with notions of what constitutes art, he also frequently eschewed artistic practices that are crucial to establishing authenticity—such as signing each work or numbering works produced as multiples or in large editions. As a result, figuring out what constitutes a “true” Warhol is ultimately a subjective and convoluted task.

    But in 2007, when the Swedish newspaper Expressen revealed that 105 Brillo boxes had been fabricated in Malmo, Sweden, in 1990—three years after Warhol’s death—and subsequently passed off as 1968 “originals” made for a retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the news sent shock waves through the art world. Now the collectors who spent thousands—in some cases hundreds of thousands—of dollars on those boxes are anxiously awaiting final word from the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board about the status of their “Stockholm type” Brillo boxes, as they have come to be called.

    At the center of the storm is the late Pontus Hulten (1924–2006), an art-world pioneer who helped to found and shape the Moderna Museet, the Pompidou Center’s Musée National d’Art Moderne, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Hulten worked closely with Warhol in 1968 on the artist’s first retrospective, at the Moderna Museet.

    More than two decades later, while organizing museum exhibitions for European venues in the early ’90s, Hulten ordered the fabrication of the 105 Brillo boxes. What no one can figure out, however, is why he did it. Did he intend—at least initially—to use them in exhibitions? Was he planning all along to deceive unsuspecting buyers? And why did he later falsely claim that the boxes had been made in 1968?

    Among those who acquired the Stockholm type boxes was Belgian art dealer Ronny van de Velde. He bought a total of 40 from Hulten sometime around 1994 for $240,000, or about $6,000 each, he says, and then quickly resold them, mostly to dealers, for about $10,000 each. Five were purchased from van de Velde by the Belgian private collector Alexandre Brotmann.

    “At the time of the sale,” van de Velde told ARTnews, “Hulten gave me a certificate saying they were in the exhibit in 1968. I had no reason to doubt him—he was like a god in the art world. Of course it was not true. They were made much later than that. He lied to me.” (A copy of the written statement from Hulten certifying that the boxes were made for the 1968 exhibition was obtained by ARTnews.)

    “I only sold boxes when they were authenticated by the Andy Warhol Authentication Board and with the certificate from Pontus Hulten saying that [these] are original Brillo boxes made for the Andy Warhol exhibition in the Moderna Museet Stockholm,” van de Velde says. He has since seen some of the Stockholm boxes fetch six-figure prices at auction. One was sold at Christie’s London in February 2006 for $208,695. It was dated 1968 in the sale catalogue.

    The controversy over the Stockholm boxes has raised questions about the methodology of the New York–based Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, a five-member panel whose rulings can crucially affect the market value of individual Warhol works. After examining many of the Stockholm boxes in the mid-’90s, the board deemed 94 of them authentic and classified them as such in the 2004 catalogue raisonné. The board has since contacted registered Stockholm-box owners and let them know it is undertaking further research, but it has yet to officially declare the Stockholm boxes fakes or remove them from the catalogue.

    In an e-mail to ARTnews, assistant secretary Claudia Defendi wrote, “The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board is very concerned about the questions regarding the Stockholm type boxes.

    “The board issued an initial report to the owners of the Stockholm type boxes in December 2007. During the past year we have been conducting an extensive amount of research and are currently preparing a second report that will be sent to the owners of the Stockholm type boxes in the near future, and which will address the questions concerning these works in considerable detail.”

    The 2004 Warhol catalogue raisonné, which lists the 94 authenticated Stockholm type boxes, indicates that they were quickly and widely dispersed into the art market after Hulten represented them as having been manufactured in 1968. “The wood boxes have been catalogued as they have been examined and identified since 1995,” the catalogue says. “Although there are slight discrepancies among individual examples, the Stockholm Boxes may be said to constitute a uniform edition.”

    Among those listed as owners of boxes examined in 1995 are Lord Palumbo, the British collector who served on the board of directors and officers of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York from 1995 to 1997, and the San Francisco collectors Vicki and Kent Logan. Their box is described as a “fractional and promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.”

    Robyn Wise, a senior public-relations associate at SFMOMA, confirmed to ARTnewsthat the work had been given to the museum by the Logans as a fractional gift, announced in 1997. Wise says, “The museum and the Logans are aware of the intensive research that the Warhol authentication board has been conducting over the past year, and we look forward to reviewing the reports when available.”

    The Logans’ collection manager didn’t respond to a request for comment. The catalogue raisonné describes their box as marked “SNY November 16, 1995 No. 396A,” a reference to a Sotheby’s New York sale. Estimated at $25,000 to $35,000, it was unsold.

    Ironically, the Brillo box that Warhol appropriated was designed in 1961 by an Abstract Expressionist painter named James Harvey (1929–65), who earned his living as a commercial artist. According to Andy Warhol (Yale University Press), a new book by critic Arthur Danto, Harvey attended Warhol’s opening at the Stable Gallery. “Harvey was stunned… realizing that he had designed the very boxes that the Stable Gallery was selling for several hundred dollars, while his boxes were worth nothing. But Harvey certainly did not consider his boxes art,” writes Danto.

    New York dealer Joan Washburn (who organized two shows of Harvey’s paintings at the Graham Gallery) was with Harvey at the opening. “He was bowled over,” Washburn recalls. Asked if Harvey was upset, she says emphatically, “No. He thought it was amusing. Everyone who walked into the Stable Gallery that night was amused.”

    Brillo, which was then owned by Purex Industries, is now owned by the United States manufacturer Church & Dwight. The package design has changed, with a colorful rainbow-like Brillo logo swirl set against a bright red background, replacing the red and blue logo set against a white background.

    One of the themes of the 1968 Moderna Museet retrospective was repetition, so Brillo boxes and flower and electric-chair silkscreen paintings were clustered in groups, says Olle Granath, a friend of Hulten who helped prepare the exhibition but was not employed by the museum at the time. He later went on to become its director, in 1980, and now serves as secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts.

    The Brillo boxes shown at the Stable Gallery were made of wood and would have been expensive to replicate. According to an essay written last year by Granath, Warhol suggested that the boxes for the Stockholm show be made in Sweden, “but that wasn’t cheap either and we were running out of time. At this point someone came up with the brilliant idea of buying five hundred cardboard boxes from Brillo. They were shipped in flat packs across the Atlantic and folded at the museum. The museum attendant and I became real wizards at folding boxes.”

    An exhibition invoice obtained by ARTnews, dated January 10, 1968, lists three cases of empty cardboard cartons, “Brillo Giant Size,” at a cost of $100, although it is not clear if this was the cost of the boxes themselves or the shipping cost.

    According to Granath’s essay, Hulten also struck a “brilliant deal” with Warhol. The Moderna Museet paid for the production of the flower and electric-chair silkscreen paintings “in exchange for a flower painting and an electric chair painting.” The invoice lists a total of ten flower paintings ($25,000) and twelve electric-chair paintings ($24,000).

    Warhol frequently struck such fabrication deals with museums. For instance, in 1970 he gave the Pasadena Art Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art permission to produce facsimile editions of his 1964 box sculptures.

    Granath told ARTnews that while the 1968 exhibition at the Moderna Museet featured only cardboard Brillo boxes, several wood Brillo boxes “appeared right after the museum show. No doubt they were made in Stockholm.”

    The Moderna Museet’s current director, Lars Nittve, and head conservator Lars Byström issued a report in late 2007 stating that in the spring of 1968 in Stockholm, “according to Olle Granath and Ulf Linde, both involved in the exhibition preparations, approximately 15 [wood] boxes were made with the permission of Andy Warhol at that time.”

    Granath, who at one point owned three of those boxes, told ARTnews he had sold them. They were consigned to the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York around 1999 and sold to buyers whom the gallery declined to identify.

    Asked why the wood boxes were fabricated and delivered after the museum had already ordered and exhibited the 500 cardboard boxes in the 1968 show, Granath says it was possible that Hulten “saw them more like a souvenir.”

    According to Nittve and Byström’s report, after experts examined a sampling of the wood Brillo boxes, the museum concluded, “Some of those examined are from 1968 when a few boxes were constructed in connection with the Andy Warhol exhibition. These boxes are, according to records and catalogue texts, constructed with the permission of the artist.”

    Granath’s statement that there were no wood Brillo boxes in the 1968 exhibition appears to have been accepted by most experts, including the members of the Warhol authentication board. Its report reads, “According to curators who worked on the Moderna Museet exhibition, no wood boxes were included in the exhibition, only cardboard packing cartons.”

    Granath says that the three boxes he sold are among the handful of “authentic” 1968 wood Brillo boxes that were manufactured in connection with the retrospective and with Warhol’s consent. However, the evidence that there were any wood Brillo boxes at all manufactured in Sweden in 1968 rests largely on his own claims.

    Asked why the wood Brillo boxes that he says he first saw around 1968 and had owned for decades were not examined by the authentication board until 1998–2000, Granath answered, “As far as I know there was no Authentication Board existing in 1968 and since then the boxes were living a silent life in my apartment. There was no reason to examine them until I decided to sell and then, as far as I can remember, Paula Cooper turned to the board.”

    Nittve was asked if there was additional evidence to support Granath’s claim that wood Brillo boxes appeared at the museum after the 1968 exhibition closed. He sent ARTnews an invoice, dated 1969, that lists a cost of 64,420 kroner (about $13,000) for “Brillo Boxes (Screen Print).” Says Nittve, “If the dates refer to 1968 (the year of the exhibition) or if it all happens in 1969, as it says on the top of the record, I can’t tell, but I am quite confident that we here have a record of the cost of printing the 1968 boxes.”

    A source familiar with Hulten’s fabrication of 105 facsimile Brillo boxes in 1990, who did not want to be identified, told ARTnews that the boxes were made at the Malmo Konsthall, and that Hulten enlisted the help of his friend Bjírn Springfeldt, who was then the Konsthall’s director. According to the source, “Springfeldt got some highly skilled guys to help Hulten, who sent one of the few remaining cardboard original Brillo manufacturing boxes that Moderna bought from Brillo Inc. in Brooklyn for the 1968 exhibition.” Springfeldt did not return calls for comment.

    The boxes were made for an exhibition, “Territorium Artis,” which traveled to the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg in 1990 and the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn in 1992. In 1990, 50 of the boxes were exhibited at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. They were listed as property from a “private collection, but they were Hulten’s,” says the source, adding that later all the boxes were returned to Hulten and stored at his home in France.

    Observers are split about Hulten’s motives, and some art experts seem reluctant to condemn or even criticize his actions. Says Nittve, “I would think when he made the boxes in 1990, I would imagine he did that believing that he did something in accordance or plausible with some sort of agreement or understanding from the ’60s. Your guess is just as good as mine as to when they were made into works of art for the market.”

    The authentication board also conducted a comparative examination of Brillo boxes in late 2007, including four Stockholm type boxes and one Brillo-box sculpture made for the 1964 Stable Gallery show. According to its findings, the 1964 box is “constructed of plywood; it is nailed together by hand. Its edges abut one another at right angles; they are not mitered. All sides of the box are hand-painted with a flat, white paint and then printed with two screens, one for the red typography and one for the blue.”

    Of the four 1990 Stockholm type boxes, two different methods of construction were noted. Two “are constructed of fiberboard, they are nailed together by hand.” They are also hand-painted. The other two are “joined with a nail gun, not by hand,” and have further variations, including “irregular” surfaces as a result of paint being applied with a roller.

    The letter sent to Brillo-box owners in late 2007 by the authentication board regarding the 1990 boxes states, “These works were produced posthumously and without the knowledge of the Andy Warhol Estate or the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. At this time, the Board cannot determine whether or not these boxes were produced in accordance with the terms of a verbal agreement Pontus Hulten made with Warhol in 1968.”

    According to Nittve, authentication board member Neil Printz, who is overseeing the Warhol catalogue raisonné, has been in touch with a number of people in Stockholm who were associated with the 1968 exhibition and has also examined documents in the museum’s archives in search of evidence of any agreement that might have existed between Hulten and Warhol.

    The other current members of the authentication board are Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA; former Whitney Museum prints curator and ARTnews contributing editor Judith Goldman; Christoph Heinrich, deputy director and Polly and Mark Addison Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum; and Sally King-Nero, curator of drawings and photography at the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and executive editor of the Warhol catalogue raisonné.

    The Moderna Museet has six boxes in its collection that were a gift from Hulten in 1995 and that “can be considered to have been made in 1990. Therefore they will most probably be struck from the collection and registered as archival material,” according to a museum statement issued in late 2007.

    The catalogue raisonné identifies the Moderna Museet as the location of six boxes examined in 1996. However, when ARTnews sought to confirm that these were the same works the museum has since reclassified, Nittve wrote in an e-mail, “The boxes belonging to the Moderna Museet have not been sent to [the authentication board] for examination and to our knowledge has the museum never asked for an examination. If the boxes referred to in the catalogue raisonné are the same as the ones we have reclassified or different we don’t know (but then one may wonder what boxes they are?). Indeed enigmatic.”

    The dozens of boxes that Hulten sold to dealers and collectors in the ’90s remain a more complicated problem. Van de Velde says that the $6,000 price per box that he paid in 1994 seemed reasonable at the time, since several Brillo boxes had failed to sell at auction.

    The auction house Stockholms Auktionsverk removed a purported 1968 Brillo box from an April 2007 sale after information was received that the work might have been created in Malmo in 1990. Andreas Ryden, head of the contemporary-art department, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

    “This is something Hulten did at an old age,” Nittve says. “What actually happened, we will never know. He passed away before they became an issue and before they came into the public domain. I have had phone calls from individuals who knew Pontus, asking me, ‘What do you think went on in his mind?’ And I can’t answer.”

    Eileen Kinsella is editor of the ARTnewsletter.

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